The idea of the right to die is based on the belief that a person has the freedom to decide for oneself regarding the end of their life which includes voluntary euthanasia. A common interpretation of this right suggests it is the right of a terminally ill person to refuse life-prolonging treatment and also as the right of a person who lacks the desire to live, to die. However, there is much debate around an individual’s right to die and the rationale of such a right.
Euthanasia is derived from the Greek word, “Euthanasia”, meaning ‘good death. There is a vehement public debate about the moral and legal aspects of euthanasia. In many countries, passive euthanasia is permissible under certain conditions. However, in a lot of countries, even the idea of active euthanasia is ardently refuted. Only very few countries like Belgium and Switzerland have legalized active euthanasia subject to heavy oversight by counselors, doctors, and other specialists.
It is classified into three types: voluntary, non-voluntary, and involuntary. Voluntary euthanasia is when an individual expresses a desire to end their life. Examples of voluntary euthanasia include simply refusing to eat, choosing to die, or refusing life-prolonging treatment. Non-voluntary euthanasia includes when an individual is in an unconscionable state and cannot make a decision, e.g.: when they are in a coma, suffering from brain damage of the highest degree, mentally ill to a severe extent, or even when the individual is an infant and cannot make their own choice. Involuntary euthanasia is performed without the individual’s consent or against their will. It is akin to murder and illegal in all countries. It is very circumstantial and can differ in its morality and ethics. When a military doctor does not have the right medication and chooses to put a wounded soldier out of his misery, it may be seen as ethical. The ethical argument for involuntary euthanasia is still hazy and needs further analysis.
RIGHT TO LIFE AND EUTHANASIA
The right to life is conferred unto citizens by the Indian Constitution in Article 21.
“Protection of life and personal liberty – No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.”
It is a Fundamental Right contained in Part III of the Constitution. The courts have interpreted Article 21 to include within its ambit several other rights that play into life and personal liberty like a life with human dignity, livelihood, shelter, privacy, and anything and everything that fulfills the criteria for a dignified life. The question of whether the right to life includes within it the right not to live or to take one’s own life is heavily debated. Death is the absence of life so one can argue that it goes against the whole principle of the right to life. Death when natural is not legally punishable. However, causing the unnatural death of oneself or someone else is not only morally reprehensible but also legally punishable. It is commonly understood that every living being wishes to live longer by any means but when one is struck with a great deal of suffering or pain that is unbearable, it only makes sense that one desires death.
EUTHANASIA IN INDIA
In India, the right to die is limited to only passive euthanasia under strict guidelines. Medical professionals, by taking the Hippocratic Oath are bound to either preserve the patient’s life or to provide relief from their suffering. Doctors are now encouraged not to prolong their life by artificial means and to serve the interests of the patients. This means that doctors need not prolong the inevitable death of a patient but instead allow the patient to die with dignity.
In the landmark case of Aruna Shanbaug v. Union of India, the Supreme Court, in March 2011, rejected Pinki Virani’s plea to passively euthanize Aruna Shanbaug instead laid down guidelines for passive euthanasia. In 2014, while hearing the PIL filed by an NGO, Common Cause, the legality of the Shanbaug judgment was called into question and a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court recognized and sanctioned passive euthanasia and living will directive. It can thus be inferred that the right to life includes within its ambit the right to die with dignity.
Author’s Name: Sahitya Parthasarathy, (Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, Hyderabad)