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13 March, 2018

Green signal for passive euthanasia

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Taking a circuitous route, the Supreme Court has come to the conclusion that the citizen’s fundamental right to live in dignity includes the right to die in dignity. Accordingly it has prepared the ground for permitting passive euthanasia under strict contril.

The issue of euthanasia was brought before the court by Pinki Virani, a journalist and human rights activist, nine years ago, citing the case of Aruna Shanbaug who had been lying in a Mumbai hospital for 36 years in what was described as ‘persistent vegetative state’.

Shanbaug was a 24-year-old nurse at that hospital when a sweeper sexually assaulted and strangulated her, leaving her in a near comatose state. While the assailant was a free man after serving a jail term of seven years, the hapless victim, abandoned by her family, was doomed to spend the rest of her life in a hospital bed. Virani book, “Aruna’s Story: the True Account of a Rape and its Aftermath”, published in 2000, was about her tragic life.

A redeeming aspect of Aruna’s story was the care which successive generations of nurses of the hospital bestowed on her, considering her as one of them, until she died of pneumonia in 2015, aged 66.

Justices Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra, in their 2011 judgment, rejected Virani’s euthanasia plea as a team of doctors reported that Shanbaug was not fully brain-dead and the hospital authorities affirmed their readiness to look after her till her last breath.

The two judges held that passive euthanasia is legal and laid down the procedure to be followed by the hospital and the Bombay High Court in case Aruna Shanbaug’s condition necessitated resort to it. 

They also recommended that Parliament enact legislation for the purpose.

The Centre devoted some attention to the matter but there has been no legislation so far. 

Last week a five-member Constitution Bench of the court, headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, while disposing of a public interest litigation on, went one step further and outlined a detailed scheme for administration of euthanasia which will remain in force until Parliament enacts a law for the purpose.

In this PIL, filed in 2005 — four years before Pinki Virani’s petition — Common Cause, a civil society organisation, had urged that “right to die with dignity” be declared a fundamental right and terminally ill persons be allowed to execute a living will for passive euthanasia.

The government’s stand on the issue was equivocal. It said it agreed in principle to passive euthanasia but was against a living will as it was liable to be misused.

The five judges wrote four concurrent judgments which recognises a person’s right to write a living will or advance directives, while mentally competent to do so, specifically instructing next of kin or medical personnel to allow passive euthanasia if he or she is in a vegetative state or terminally ill with no chance of recovery or revival.

The individual’s right to die with dignity takes precedence over the interest of the state in preserving the sanctity of life, the court said.

The scheme drawn up by the court permits a person to nominate a kin to provide consent for passive euthanasia and to revoke the living will before it is put into effect.

It contains several built-in safeguards. The living will must be signed and witnessed by at least two persons. A Judicial Magistrate (First Class) must sign it after satisfying himself that all requirements had been fulfilled. Doctors are required to verify the authenticity of the living will before acting upon it.

The hospital where the person is admitted is required to constitute a medical board to decide the issue of passive euthanasia. If it decides to act upon the living will, the District Collector must be informed and he must constitute another medical board. If this board too recommends passive euthanasia, the matter should be referred to the Judicial Magistrate who must visit the patient and give his approval.

Will the scheme work well? Considering the heavy preoccupations of the Collector and the Judicial Magistrate and the history of administrative and judicial delays, there can be doubts on this score. 

Voluntary extinction of life through indefinite fast has been a part of the Jain tradition and Tarun Sagar, a leading monk of the community, hailed the Supreme Court verdict.

Differing notes came from two minority community leaders. All India Sunni Jamiat-ul-ulema Generaal Secretary AP Aboobaker Musaliyar said only God who gave life had the right to take it back. Kerala Catholic Bishops Cinference President Archbishop Susaipakiam said killing an old or sick person due to sympathy was not acceptable. 

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