euthanasia right to life

In this article Nisha Modak a student from D.E.S’s Shri Navalmal Firodia Law College, Pune discusses on Right to life and its applicability with respect to Euthanasia.

Introduction

The Constitution of India is the foundation based on which our basic human rights are safeguarded. It was drafted with the objective of ensuring that every citizen is at the liberty to defend himself against anything which threatens his well-being. The primary motive of the provisions of the Constitution is to guarantee that every person can live a peaceful and respectable life, free of any discrimination or oppression. Thus, it can be said that the Constitution provides us with a right to live with dignity while providing for quality of life. Historically, the right to life has been expressed in a variety of ways – such as the primacy of the human person, or the intrinsic dignity of the human being. Some trace the origin of ‘the right to life’ to the early middle-ages. Other more ancient expressions express the protection of life in the negative – forbidding harming or killing people. The modern statements of the right to life stress that it is an integral right – it does not allow distinctions between races, sexes, or people of different capabilities. In our constitution, provisions for the right to life have been laid down under Article 21, which is one of the most important provisions that has been made.

Ambit and scope of the right to life

Article 21 states that “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to a procedure established by law.” This provision may be considered as the heart and soul of the constitution, for it seeks to provide the most fundamental protection, which is the protection of life. In the case of Munn v. Illinois, the Court referred to the observation of Justice Field, wherein he stated that by the term ‘life’ as here used something more is meant than a mere animal existence. Thus, it embraces within itself not only the physical existence but also the quality of life. The Court also observed that life ‘includes all that which gives meaning to a man’s life including his tradition, culture and heritage and protection of that heritage in its full measure. The Supreme Court in the case of Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India held that right to life embodied in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, is not merely a physical right but it also includes within its ambit, the right to live with human dignity. Article 21 weaves a string of an endless yarn of welfare legislation. Its scope and interpretation has been time and again defined and redefined, giving it the widest possible amplitude.

Since life and death are two sides of the same coin, a law which protects life must also provide a right to die with dignity. The right to die is as basic as the right to live and as natural as being born. Thus the question arises whether the right to life under Article 21 includes right to die or not.

Viewpoints of different courts on whether the right to life can be extended to include the right to die

This issue came under consideration for the first time before the High Court of Bombay in State of Maharashtra v. Maruti Shripati Dubal. In this case, the Bombay High Court held that the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 includes right to die, and the Hon’ble High Court struck down section 309 IPC which provides punishment for attempt to commit suicide by a person as unconstitutional. In P Rathinam v. Union of India a Division Bench of the Supreme Court supporting the decision of the High Court of Bombay in Maruti Shripati Dubal case held that under Article 21, right to life also includes the right to die and laid down that section 309 of Indian Penal Court which deals with ‘attempt to commit suicide is a penal offence’ unconstitutional. This issue was once again raised before the court in Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab. In this case a five-judge Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court overruled the P. Rathinam’s case and held that ‘Right to Life’ under Article 21 of the Constitution does not include ‘Right to die’ or ‘Right to be killed’ and there is no ground to hold that the section 309, IPC is constitutionally invalid.

The concept of Mercy killing

Mercy killing, as the name suggests, entails ending the life of a person as a form of mercy shown to him, when his living conditions deteriorate so much as to render him with no quality of life. Another name given to this is ‘euthanasia’. It applies to terminally ill patients, who despite extensive medical care have no chances of being restored to health. They are thus condemned to spend the remainder of their lives in misery. Every individual has a right to choose what kind of life they want to live all the way through to death. Life should be about quality and not quantity because, with no quality, the quantity no longer matters. Patients who are surviving solely on machines and medicines, with no recovery possible, are not leading a life worth living. In such cases, invoking the Right to life only prolongs their agony.

Arguments against euthanasia

It has been argued that the act of euthanasia goes against the order of nature, and hence is an act again God.  It weakens society’s respect for the sanctity of life. Accepting euthanasia means accepting that some lives (those of the disabled or sick) are worth less than others, which is violative of the right of the person to be treated as an equal to others. However, one of the most important reasons as to why people do not advocate the concept of euthanasia is that there is no way to regulate it, which might lead to people fulfilling their own malicious intentions under the guise of mercy killing.

Evolution in the laws regarding euthanasia in India

A landmark case which led to a change in euthanasia law in India was that of Aruna Shanbaug, who was rendered comatose for 40 years. Pinki Virani, a social activist, filed a petition in the Supreme Court arguing that the “continued existence of Shanbaug is in violation of her right to live in dignity”.  The Supreme Court responded to the plea for euthanasia and concluded that Shanbag met “most of the criteria of being in a permanent vegetative state”, but it turned down the mercy killing petition. However, in its landmark judgment, on 7th March 2014, it allowed passive euthanasia. Passive euthanasia is a condition where there is a withdrawal of medical treatment with the deliberate intention to hasten the death of a terminally-ill patient. Contrary to this is active euthanasia, which is the act of helping someone die by injecting or giving them drugs that will allow them to peacefully pass away, which is not legally permitted in India.

Struggle for the legalisation of passive euthanasia

Though relief was granted in this one case, it was sought to legalise passive euthanasia in all other similar cases.

An NGO, ‘Common Cause’ had moved the top court way back in 2005 seeking right to make a living will authorizing the withdrawal of life support system in the event of will makers reaching irreversible vegetative state. The central government had in the course of hearing of the matter by a five-judge Constitution Bench told the top court that passive euthanasia was the law of the land with safeguards by virtue of the judgement in the Shanbaug case. After a long drawn legal battle, on 9th March 2018, a five-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra legalised passive euthanasia. “Human beings have the right to die with dignity,” said the apex court after allowing passive euthanasia. The apex court permitted an individual to prepare a “living will” that will authorise the withdrawal of all life support systems but with the permission from family members of the person who sought passive euthanasia and also a team of expert doctors who say that the person’s revival is practically impossible.

This judgement has been a remarkable change in the way right to life was perceived and has widened its scope, to ensure that the dignity of every person is safeguarded, in life as well as in death.

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