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Euthanasia: The last right?

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By:Huzaif Ashraf

The Supreme court in a very recent judgement held that passive euthanasia, that is, a form of euthanasia in which medical treatment that will keep a dying patient alive for a time is withdrawn, resulting in a silent death of the patient, to be legal. This decision by the apex court implies that right to life under Article 21 of the Indian constitution includes easing the process of death of a terminally ill patient or a person in persistent vegetative state with no hope of recovery, nullifying the earlier judgement in the case of Gian Kumar where right to die was clearly excluded from Article 21 of the constitution. The question that arises here is whether the right to live should include the right to die, and not just die, but die in a dignified manner.

It is worth mentioning that Netherlands and Belgium have recognized euthanasia already and there is a possibility that in near future a few more countries will follow suit. In United States, the state of Oregon has already recognized euthanasia and Washington seeks to be the second state to legalize it.

The debate around which it all rotates is whether euthanasia is a mercy killing or a murder. The ones in favour of it say that a person should be allowed to choose his faith, also assisting a subject to die might be a better choice than requiring they continue to suffer. On the other side, those who oppose euthanasia say that not all deaths are painful, alternatives such as cessation of active treatment combined with the use of effective pain relief are available and legalizing it would place society on a slippery slope, that will lead to unacceptable consequences.

The Supreme court in the same judgement has also legalized advanced directive or living will, by which patients can spell out whether treatment can be withdrawn if they fall terminally ill or are incompetent to express their opinion, and the court’s reasoning is very apt when it says burdening a dying person with life prolonging treatment just because medical science has advanced, would be against the dignity of that person. In the same connection, the central government also stated that it was also in the process of introducing a law to regulate passive euthanasia, but opposed the concept of advanced directive on the ground that it would be misused. The apex court seems to have justified in concluding that advanced directive will adhere the doctors treating the particular patient by assuring them that they are acting lawfully in respecting the patient’s wishes, because, logically an advanced directive is the patient’s autonomy and does not amount to a recognition of a wish to die.

Although there is no reason that euthanasia can’t be regulated, but, some problems that might rise out of it, for example, it would be difficult to deal with people who want to implement euthanasia for selfish reasons or pressurize vulnerable patients into dying. This seems to be little different from the position with any crime, just like the law prohibits theft, but, that doesn’t stop bad people from stealing. Also, Immanuel Kant has said about ethics that only those ethical principles that could be accepted as a universal rule (that is, one that applied to everybody) should be accepted.

–        Huzaif Ashraf is a student of law at Department of legal Studies, Central University of Kashmir. He can be reached at:

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