Editorials, GS-2, Uncategorized

Towards a Law on Euthanasia

A year-and-a-half after strongly objecting to the Supreme Court’s decision to adjudicate a plea for making passive euthanasia legal, the NDA government has now made a U-turn, saying that it was on the verge of framing a legislation permitting the process but would await the court’s verdict on it.

  • Based on the recommendations of the expert committee, the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) has proposed formulation of legislation on passive euthanasia.

What has the committee suggested?

  • The expert committee has suggested certain changes in the draft bill on euthanasia.
  • The committee has not agreed to active euthanasia since it has more potential for misuse and as on date it is prevalent in very few countries worldwide.

What is euthanasia?

Euthanasia is a medical term meaning ‘easy death’. It is the act of deliberate or voluntary end of someone’s life to prevent any further suffering or pain to the person.

Active and Passive euthanasia:

  • Active euthanasia involves a doctor injecting a lethal medicine to trigger a patient’s cardiac arrest.
  • In passive euthanasia, doctors, with the consent of relatives, withdraw the life support system of a person being kept alive with the help of machines.

What’s the issue now?

The issue surrounding the debate is about the rights of a terminally-ill person once doctors unanimously rule out chances of his or her survival.

Background:

In July 2014, a five-judge supreme court bench had decided to adjudicate the legality of active and passive euthanasia and the emerging concept of ‘living will’ after shying away for decades from examining this highly emotive and legally complicated issue.

  • The Centre had then stoutly objected to the exercise. The government then did not accept euthanasia as a principle. It had categorically said, “In whichever form, the court has no jurisdiction to decide this. It’s for Parliament and the legislature to take a call after a thorough debate and taking into account multifarious views.”
  • The court had agreed it was a matter of public policy and that Parliament and the legislature were competent to decide it. But it wanted a countrywide debate and had sought views of states and Union territories.

Supreme Court’s views on this matter:

Previously in 2011, in Aruna Shanbaug case the Court had ruled in favour of passive euthanasia and the law ministry had opined that the SC’s “directions should be followed”.

  • In its landmark 2011 verdict that was notable for its progressive, humane and sensitive treatment of the complex interplay of individual dignity and social ethics, the Supreme Court laid down a broad legal framework.
  • It ruled out any backing for active euthanasia, or the taking of a specific step such as injecting the patient with a lethal substance, to put an end to a patient’s suffering, as that would be clearly illegal.
  • It allowed ‘passive euthanasia’, or the withdrawal of life support, subject to safeguards and fair procedure.
  • It made it mandatory that every instance should get the approval of a High Court Bench, based on consultation with a panel of medical experts.

Questions now before the Court:

The question now before a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court is based on a petition by the NGO Common Cause. It asks whether the right to live with dignity under Article 21 includes the right to die with dignity, and whether it is time to allow ‘living wills’, or written authorisations containing instructions given by persons in a healthy state of mind to doctors that they need not be put on life-support systems or ventilators in the event of their going into a persistent vegetative state or state of terminal illness.

Worldwide practice:

The perception of ethicality of euthanasia varies in different countries and cultures. Laws and religious sentiments of people often play a major role in the way it is perceived.

  • The deliberate act of taking away a person’s life is classified as a murder and thus a crime. Aiding and abetting someone in suicide too falls under crime. Owing to this, various countries have greatly varying legal stance towards euthanasia.
  • Euthanasia has been criminalized by the likes of Philippines, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. These nations saw several failed attempts to legalize euthanasia.
  • There are some nations which allow ending a terminally ill person’s life if the person or next of kin consents. However, several conditions govern the definition of the term ‘terminally ill’. Legalizing euthanasia in these nations aims at preventing any further distress and suffering to the person.
  • Euthanasia is legal in Colombia, Luxembourg, Canada and Belgium.

Should Euthanasia be legal?

Arguments For Euthanasia:

  • It provides a way to relieve extreme pain.
  • It provides a way of relief when a person’s quality of life is low.
  • Frees up medical funds to help other people.
  • It is another case of freedom of choice.

Arguments Against Euthanasia:

  • Euthanasia devalues human life.
  • Euthanasia can become a means of health care cost containment.
  • Physicians and other medical care people should not be involved in directly causing death.
  • There is a “slippery slope” effect that has occurred where euthanasia has been first been legalized for only the terminally ill and later laws are changed to allow it for other people or to be done non-voluntarily.

Way ahead:

The Centre has told the Supreme Court that it was creating a legislation permitting passive euthanasia but would wait for the SC’s decision on the matter.

Conclusion:

Euthanasia is a topic which touches various aspects of our society. It requires a focussed perspective considering all the pros and cons. The dilemmas regarding the legal issues surrounding euthanasia are often due to the ethical aspects which raises question about the rights of a person to take someone else’s life. The debate over the ethicality of euthanasia is a never-ending one. Hence, to resolve this conflict between pain and death, the sooner that a comprehensive law on the subject is enacted, the better it will be for society. Even if permitted, euthanasia should be used in deserving cases only, that too sincerely, honestly and consciously under strict control and supervision of a statutory body.

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