Published: Sun, March 11, 2018
Health Care | By Gwendolyn Kim

SC Legalizes Passive Euthanasia: Right to Die With Dignity

SC Legalizes Passive Euthanasia: Right to Die With Dignity

A five-judge constitution bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra observed that the failure to legally recognise advance medical directives may amount to "non-facilitation" of the right to smoothen the dying process and the dignity in that process was also a part of the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution.

"Human beings have the right to die with dignity", said the apex court after allowing passive euthanasia.

Aruna Shanbaug, 25, was a nurse in the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Mumbai when she was assaulted on November 27, 1973 by a sweeper. "There was no bedsore on her, which means she was not in a vegetative state". She could not move her hands or legs and could not talk or even move facial muscles for more than 40 years.

Father Paul Thelakkat, editor of the church-run Sathyadeepam magazine, said the church apprehends that the verdict could be misused as a right of dignified killing of terminally ill patients.

"This judgement is because of Aruna Shanbaug, who suffered for 42 years". In passive euthanasia, no individual is given inordinate powers to take a life and safeguards require judicial scrutiny and a medical board comprising a team of doctors to make the recommendation. The Judges on the bench were nearly unanimous and in sync with the milestone verdict they passed and provided vocal support to the cause of the terminally ill people who they believe complete a glorious life only if they meet a non-volatile end.

The petition in the case brought out several moral and ethical aspects of the issue that had until now been perceived just as medico-legal issues.

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The hospital should constitute a medical board consisting of the head of the treating department and at least three experts on general medicine, cardiology, neurology, nephrology, psychiatry or oncology with experience in critical care and having experience of at least 20 years.

Passive euthanasia involves stopping medical treatment with the deliberate intention to hasten the death of a terminally ill patient.

The Supreme Court March 9 said a person has the "right to die with dignity" and can make an advance "living will" authorizing the withdrawal of life support systems if in the view of medical professionals he or she has reached an irreversible stage of terminal illness. Meantime, a non-government organisation approached the top court with a plea to also legalise the right to a living will.

What is a living will?

The court said its guidelines set out "will prevail until the government comes out with legislation". If there are more than one valid advance directives, the latest one signed by the person will be considered as his last wish. It is a concept associated with passive euthanasia. Living will is an advance directive that allows people to decide in advance whether or not they want to be put on life support in cases of terminal illness. "The court has held that an individual has full right to decide that he should not take any kind of medical treatment or he should not keep alive by artificial support systems and if that person so decides that the decision of that individual is binding or the doctors and his/her family and they have to respect his/her decision; they have to give affect to his/her decision", Prashant Bhushan, an advocate who appeared on behalf of the NGO Common Cause, which filed the plea, said, explaining the judgment outside the Supreme Court.

But what about cases where there is no advance directive?

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