If not all of us remember Aruna Shanbaug’s case, a fair proportion would certainly recall the Hrithik-Aishwarya starrer Bollywood movie Guzarish that spoke of the same issue in a backdrop of romance – the right of a terminally ill person to choose a dignified death. Public opinion has always been divided on the topic, and nothing with any semblance of a consensus could be reached despite continuous debates and discussions. A fair portion of the population accepts and supports a person’s right to choose to die, while another part of the majority speaks against it for reasons of religion, chances of abuse, morality and ethics. The matter came up before the Supreme Court in the case of Aruna Shanbaug in 2011, wherein the Court laid down detailed guidelines on passive euthanasia, while accepting to some extent that in some scenarios death is more dignified than an artificially prolonged life.
While the idea of active euthanasia seems too far a prospect for the Indian social scenario, the Supreme Court has recently indicated that it might recognize the execution of ‘living will’ in cases of passive euthanasia, as right to die peacefully is part of fundamental right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution. The matter came up in the case of a petition submitted by a terminally ill patient before the Court, and the verdict has been reserved by a five-judge Bench comprising of J. Dipak Mishra, which will play a major role in redefining the bounds of Right to Life. The verdict would have ripples of effect on social and legal angles, with a large majority of terminally ill people being given a chance at ending the pain; while the scope of right to life would be broadened further to include the Right to Die. The IPC still considers it an offence to attempt to commit suicide, but the recognition of living will to opt for passive euthanasia will afford some power to people to decide on their life or death. The risk of potential misuse of living will still persists especially in the case of mentally unstable persons and elderly people, who may be falsely induced into writing one, by unscrupulous kin who are to benefit from the death of the concerned person. A living will is a written document that allows a patient to give explicit instructions in advance about the medical treatment to be administered when he or she is terminally ill or no longer able to express informed consent. In effect, it allows a person to state that he must not be put on life-support or medication if he is found terminally ill or in comatose stage, thus speeding up the natural course of death without actively administering any lethal drug.
The Govt. which contested the matter took a stand against the acceptance of living will, expressing their concern on potential abuse of the provision, but the Court stated that “Right to Life does not mean right to die but a dignified life would certainly include right to die with dignity”. The Court would certainly not compromise on ensuring that all safeguards are in place to prevent possible abuse, even if the concept of living will is accepted in the verdict. The requirement under the previously set Guidelines regarding the declaration of a Medical Board in respect to irreversible comatose state of the person will be kept as a pre-requisite before the living will comes into consideration.
The Court’s verdict will undoubtedly have long-reaching effects, and it is expected to be in consonance with the landmark privacy decision that was pronounced by the Court recently, declaring privacy as a fundamental right. It is pertinent to note that the decision to choose dignified death over a prolonged life of pain and suffering could also be brought under the ambit of privacy.