Decriminalising Suicide: The Right to Die, & other matters of life & death
The government’s decision to remove Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which makes attempted suicide apunishable offence by law, shall be welcomed by both the Indian Psychiatric Society and the Law Commission.
Both have argued through the Mental Health Bill, 2013, and the 210th Law Commission report, respectively, for the repeal of Section 309. They were of the opinion that one who attempts suicide requires medical and psychiatric care rather than punishment.
However, the repeal of Section 309 also calls into question a lot more than only attempted suicide. It could also be perceived as the starting point for the revival of debates on euthanasia, or medically-assisted suicide. Although the term euthanasia implies ‘good death’, it has largely come to be identified with physician-assisted suicide and regarded as a form of suicide that aterminally-ill person can commit through the assistance of the other, mainly the treating physician.
Euthanasia gained significant attention in our country with the Aruna Shanbaug case in 2011. Shanbaug was aformer nurse at the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Mumbai where, in 1973, she was sexually molested by a ward boy and was in a vegetative state since. It was only in 2011 that the Supreme Court responded to a plea filed by Shanbaug’s friend by setting up a medical panel to examine her.
‘Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug vs Union of India & Ors’ (March 7, 2011) was the first case that had been heard by any Indian court on the subject of euthanasia. The court subsequently turned down the plea for euthanasia, but laid down guidelines for passive euthanasia, which involves the withdrawal of life-continuing treatment or food, under the ‘rarest of rare’ circumstance.
This particular judgment had been questioned earlier in 2014 by afive-judge bench constituted by Chief Justice P Sathasivam. The constitutional bench alleged that a clear law on the subject of euthanasia in India was mandatory.
The constitutional bench was constituted for the purpose of providing a new set of guidelines on euthanasia.
It was stated that the procedure set in the Shanbaug verdict did not comply with Article 21, which guarantees the ‘right to life’ under the Indian Constitution but not the ‘right to die with dignity’. Again, on July 16, 2014, the apex court issued a notice to all states and Union territories on a supplication for the legalisation of passive euthanasia. The states and the UTs had been asked to respond within the next eight weeks of the issue of notice.
Despite this, there has not been any action on part of the units of the Indian state. The debates concerning euthanasia have, therefore, remained inconclusive.
The sudden removal of Section 309 shall play an instrumental role in making a move for the validation of euthanasia. The primary question lawmakers shall be confronted with is whether Indian society is equipped to have a law on euthanasia.
Legalising euthanasia in India, the majority population of which still lies below the poverty line, could have serious implications on society at large. In the absence of proper healthcare facilities, such an action could have fatal consequences.
Further, the impact would be more severe if there is a push for legalising active euthanasia, which involves injecting lethal drugs into the patient’s body. It would only lead to involuntary euthanasia, which essentially amounts to taking lives of persons without obtaining their consent. This might result in the ‘doing away’ with the terminally ill well in advance of treatment for personal gains like property inheritance. In the absence of proper guidelines and checks, legalising euthanasia will be misused and will be carried out in a rampant manner.
On the other hand, passive euthanasia, which involves removal of the lifesupport system when it is of no benefit to the patient, should find room for discussion. The debate on the issue that the Aruna Shanbaug case ignited should be reopened for further analysis. A legislative move on passive euthanasia should be considered seriously.
The basic thrust behind the debate should be to arrive at a conscious and acceptable decision that shall be beneficial for Indian society at large.
For a counterview, read ET’s ‘Now, do a rethink on euthanasia laws’ at goo.gl/npM69w