The care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the first and only legitimate object of good government. (Thomas Jefferson)
In our day-to-day life we often come across terminally-ill patients that are bedridden and are totally dependent on others. It is actually hurts their sentiments. Looking at them one must say death would be a better option for them rather than living such a painful life; which is painful physically as well as psychologically. But if one look at the Netherlands where euthanasia is made legal, one can see that how it is abused there. So, following its example, no one wants euthanasia to be legalized in India.
From the moment of his birth, a person is clothed with basic human rights. Right to life means a human being has an essential right to live, particularly that such human being has the right not to be killed by another human being. But the question arises that if a person has a right to live, whether he has a right not to live i.e., whether he has a right to die? While giving this answer, the Indian courts expressed different opinions.
In the land mark case of state of Maharashtra v. Maruti sripati dubal , wherein sripati Dubal tried to immolate himself. Apex court stated that section 309 Indian Penal code which deals with punishment for those found guilty of attempted suicide is not ultra vires of article 14 and article 21 of the constitution. Hence, the court held that ‘right to life’ under article 21 of the Indian constitution ‘includes right to die’.
However in chenna jagadesswar v. State of Andhra Pradesh , the Andhra Pradesh high court held that right to die is not a fundamental right under article 21 of the constitution. In 1994, the supreme court of India ruled in the case of P. Rathinam v. Union of india , that article 21 of the constitution i.e., ‘ right to live’ include ‘ right not to live’ i.e., right to die or to terminate one’s life. The apex court further stated that suicide attempt has no beneficial effect on society and the act of suicide is not against religions, morality or public policy.
But again in a landmark judgement passed by bench consisting of 5 members in Gian kaur v. State of Punjab , overruled the P. Rathinam’s case and held that ‘ right to life’ does not include ‘right to die’. Extinction of life’ is not included in ‘protection of life’. ‘ right to die’ with dignity at the end of life is not to be confused or equated with the ‘right to die’ an unnatural death curtailing the natural span of life. Further, the court stated that provision under section 309, IPC penalizing attempts to commit suicide is not violative of article 14 or 21 of the constitution.
One of the controversial issues in the recent past has been the question of legalizing the right to die or euthanasia. Euthanasia is controversial since it involves the deliberate termination of human life. Patient suffering from terminal diseases are often faced with great deal of pain as the diseases gradually worsens until it kills them and this may be so frightening for them that they would rather end their life than suffering it. So, the question is whether people should be given assistance in killing themselves, or whether they should be left to suffer the pain caused by terminal – illness.
The term euthanasia comes from two ancient Greek words: ‘eu’ means ‘good’ and ‘thanatos’ means ‘death’, so euthanasia means ‘good death’. It is an act or practice of ending the life of an individual suffering from a terminal illness or in an incurable condition by injection or by suspending extra-ordinary medical treatment in order to free him of intolerable pain or from terminal illness. Euthanasia is defined as an intentional killing by an act or omission of person whose life is felt not to be worth living. It is also known as ‘ Mercy Killing’ which is an act where the individual who, is in an irremediable condition or has no chances of survival as he is suffering from painful life, ends his life in a painless manner. It is a gentle, easy and painless death. It implies the procuring of an individual’s death, so as to avoid or end pain or suffering, especially of individuals suffering from incurable disease.
Oxford dictionary defines it as the painless killing of a person who has an incurable disease or who is in an irreversible coma. According to the House of Lords select committee on medical ethics, it is “a deliberate intervention under-taken with the express intention of ending life to relieve intractable suffering.” Thus, it can be said that euthanasia is the deliberated and intentional killing of a human being by a direct action, such as lethal injection, or by the failure to perform even the most basic medical care or by withdrawing life-support system in order to release that human being from painful life.
It is basically to bring about the death of terminally –ill patients or a disabled. It is resorted to so that the last days of a patient who has been suffering from such an illness which is terminal in nature or which has disabled him can peacefully end up his life and which can also prove to be less painful for him.
Thus, the basic intention behind euthanasia is to ensure a less painful death to a person who is in any case going to die after a long period of suffering. Euthanasia is practiced so that a person can live as well as die with dignity. In brief, it means putting a person to painless death in case of incurable diseases or when life becomes purposeless or hopeless as a result of mental or physical handicap.
The supreme court, had occasion to discuss the issues of suicide, euthanasia, assisted suicide, abetment of suicide, stopping life sustaining treatment in Gain Kaur v. State of Punjab . As the supreme court referred to some of the provisions of the indian penal code, 1860 in that connection. These are as follows :
a) Section 107,306 and 309 of the indian penal code, 1860. Section 306 of the IPC which refers to ‘ abetment of suicide’, reads as: If any person commits suicide whoever abets the commission of such suicide, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 10 years, and shall liable to fine.
b) Section 107 of the IPC defines ‘abetment of a thing’ as follows : A person abets the doing of a thing, who first: instigate any person to do that thing; secondly: engages with one or more other persons in any conspiracy for the doing of that thing, if an act or illegal omission takes place in pursuance of that conspiracy, in order to the doing of that thing; or
Thirdly: intentionally aids, by an act or illegal omission, the doing of that thing.
- Explanation .1. – a person who by wilful misrepresentation, or by wilful concealment of a material fact which he is bound to disclose, volunatarily causes or procures, or attempts to procure or causes a thing to be done, is said to instigate the doing of that thing.
- Explanation .2. –whoever, either prior to or at the time of the commission of an act, does anything in order to facilitate the commission of that act and thereby facilitates the commission thereof, is said to aid the doing of that act.
c) Section 309 of the code makes ‘attempt to commit suicide’ an offence and it states as follows :
Whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine or with both. Thus, ‘attempt to commit suicide’ is an offence which may result in imprisonment (for a term which may extend to one year) or with fine or with both.
While dealing with section 309, it is necessary to refer to two important decisions of the supreme court of India where, in the first case in P. Rathinam v. Union of India , a two-judge bench of the supreme court struck down section 309 as unconstitutional and in the second case in Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab , a constitution bench overruled the earlier judgement and upheld the validity of section 309.
In both the judgements, the provisions of article 21 of the constitution of India which guarantees that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law were interpreted. It was held in both cases, that in any event, section 309 did not contravene article 21 of the constitution of India.
In Gian Kaur’s case, the appellants who were convicted under section 306 for ‘abetment of suicide’ contended that if section 309 dealing with ‘ attempt to commit suicide’ was unconstitutional, for the same reasons, section 306 which deals with ‘ abetment of suicide’ must be treated as unconstitutional. But the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of both section 306 and section 309.
In Gian Kaur’s case, the supreme court made it clear that ‘euthanasia’ and ‘assisted suicide’ are not lawful in India and the provisions of the IPC, 1860 get attracted to these acts. But, the question is whether Gian Kaur’s case, either directly or indirectly deals with ‘withdrawal of life support?
Fortunately, in the context of section 306(abetment of suicide), there are some useful remarks In gian kaur’s case , which touch upon the subject of withdrawal of life support. Before the Supreme Court, in the context of an argument dealing with ‘abetment’ of suicide, the decision of the House of Lords in Airedale N.H.S. Trust v. Bland , was cited. The Supreme Court referred to the distinction between withdrawing life support and euthanasia as follows:
Airedale’s case was a case relating to withdrawal of artificial measures for continuance of life by a physician. Even though it is not necessary to deal with physician assisted suicide or euthanasia case, a brief reference to the decision cited at bar may be made.
In the context of existence in the persistent vegetative state of no benefit to the patient, the principle of sanctity of life, which is the concern of the state, was stated to be not an absolute one. In such cases also, the existence crucial distinction between cases in which a physician decides not to provide, or to continue to provide, for his patient, treatment of care which could or might prolong his life, for example, by administering a lethal drug, actively to bring his patient’s life to an end, was indicated as under….”
But, it is not lawful for a doctor to administer a drug to his patient to bring about his death, even though that course is promoted by a humanitarian desire to end his suffering, however great that suffering may be. Thus, euthanasia is not lawful at common law.
Thus, in this effect, the supreme court, while making the distinction between euthanasia, which can be legalized only by legislation, and ‘withdrawal of life-support,’ appears to agree with the house of lords that ‘withdrawal of life support’ is permissible in respect of a patient in a PVS as it is no longer beneficial to the patient that ‘artificial measures’ be started or continued merely for continuance of life’. The court also observed that the principle of sanctity of life which is the concern of the state , was ‘not an absolute one’.