India's top court approves right to passive euthanasia

Lena Tucker
March 11, 2018

The Supreme Court's landmark verdict upholding passive euthanasia is replete with philosophical quotes drawn from the judges' own collective experiences of life and ancient texts. But inMay 11, 2005, Supreme Court took note on a PIL initiated bya NGOto legalize the execution of a living will to the terminally ill persons and make the provisions of Art 21 of the Constitution a bit flexible to include the right to die with dignity under "right to life". She also said that the apex court on Friday recognised the "living will" made by terminally ill patients for passive euthanasia.

Announcing its decision, the Constitution Bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justice A.K. Sikri, Justice A.M. Khanwilkar, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and Justice Ashok Bhushan said that its guidelines and directives will remain in force till a legislation is brought to deal with the issue.

The court's ruling came on a petition seeking recognition of a living will so that an individual could exercise the right to refuse medical treatment at a terminally ill stage of life.

While passing the landmark judgment, the court further asked the Centre to pass a law soon on the matter. People now will be allowed to grant a living power of attorney to another.

Meanwhile, the government had said past year that it had prepared a draft bill to allow passive euthanasia. Integrity and ethical conduct of the medical and legal professions need supplementary fortification, on matters beyond passive euthanasia as well.

However, the elderly couple from Mumbai, who had also sought legalistation of active euthanasia, said they are not satisfied with the Supreme Court order.

However, the court stated that a strict set of guidelines should be framed to ensure that the clause of "living will" is not misused. As of 2006, euthanasia is the most active area of research in contemporary bioethics. The person authorising passive euthanasia has to sign the document in the presence of two witnesses, preferably independent; it has to be countersigned by a Judicial Magistrate of First Class (JMFC), who shall preserve one copy in his office besides sending it to the registry of the district judge to retain it in digital format.

The term "passive euthanasia" is defined as the withdrawal of life support, treatment or nutrition with the deliberate intention to hasten a terminally ill-patient's death. The doctors treating such a patient will withdraw medical support provided the patient has left behind a "living will" for pulling the "plug" in such situations.

In order to overcome the difficulty faced in case of patients who are unable to express their wishes at the time of taking the decision, the concept of advance medical directives emerged in various countries.

Thus the Constitution Bench held that an adult human being having mental capacity to take an informed decision has right to refuse medical treatment including withdrawal from life saving devices. Active euthanasia, by administering a lethal injection, continues to be illegal in India.

"This is in contrast to care which is driven by the medical industry whose heroic interventions to extend life can cause enormous suffering to the dying person while only delaying the inevitable, also emotionally and financially exhausting families".

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