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Indian Supreme Court rules on the right to die

In the absence of legislation on the controversial issue of euthanasia, the Supreme Court has stepped in and ruled that ‘active euthanasia’ or administering a lethal injection to end life cannot be permitted. The court was ruling in the case of 60-year-old Aruna Shanbaug who has been lying in a vegetative state for 37 years after being brutally attacked and raped

The Supreme Court of India has, for the first time, laid down guidelines for euthanasia and made a distinction between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ euthanasia. It said that causing the death of a person who is in a permanent vegetative state, with no chance of recovery, by withdrawing artificial life support is not a “positive act of killing”.

Terming this “passive euthanasia,” a bench of Justices Markandey Katju and Gyansudha Misra held that this could be permitted on a case-by-case basis.

“The withdrawal of life support by the doctors is in law considered as an omission and not a positive step to terminate life. The latter would be euthanasia, a criminal offence under the present law in UK, USA and India.”

‘Active’ euthanasia, on the other hand, which could mean administering the patient a lethal drug to cause his or her death, was illegal as it is a “positive step to terminate a life,” the bench ruled.

The court was hearing a plea filed by Pinki Virani representing 60-year-old nurse Aruna Shanbaug who has been lying in a vegetative state for 37 years after being attacked by a sweeper at KEM hospital in 1973. The nurses of the hospital have since been taking care of her. Virani petitioned the court that Shanbaug be allowed to die by withdrawing food and medicines, as she has been in a vegetative state for over three decades.

The court clarified that stopping treatment (which it has allowed) and giving a lethal injection (which is has not allowed) are not both deliberate acts and therefore the same thing. “The difference between active and passive euthanasia is that in active euthanasia something is done to end the patient’s life, while in passive euthanasia something is not done that would have preserved the patient’s life,” the bench observed.

The court also laid down guidelines for passive euthanasia such as that the matter must be referred to the high court for a decision and that the doctor, or the parents or spouse of the patient must be the ones to petition for the withdrawal of life-support. In the absence of any of these, a person or a body of persons acting as ‘next friend’ can be permitted. Virani, the petitioner in this case, was not the right person, the hospital was, the judges held.

The judgment allowing passive euthanasia will remain in force until such time as Parliament enacts a suitable law on euthanasia. Until then, the following process will be followed:

1 A special two-judge bench will be formed in every high court to decide applications seeking permission for euthanasia.

2 A committee of three reputed doctors from a panel constituted by the high court in consultation with the state government will examine the patient and submit its report to the high court bench.

3 Notices will be issued to all those concerned with the doctor’s report attached.

4 After hearing everyone, the bench will give its verdict. The matter must be dealt with speedily as delays prolong the agony of the patient.

The judges also made a significant recommendation: that the Union government repeal Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code that makes attempt to suicide an offence.

Source: The Indian Express, March 8, 2011
             DNA, March 8, 2011