Passive euthanasia made legal in India

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The Supreme Court of India finally takes the decision.

The court ruled on Friday that individuals were allowed to draft a “living will” that authorized the withdrawal of life support if they reached an irreversible or terminal stage of illness. The supreme authorities of the country have delivered a historic and important decision allowing mercy killing or passive euthanasia in certain cases.

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What is Euthanasia?

Euthanasia or mercy killing is the practice of intentionally ending a life to relieve pain. The main purpose of the practice is painless inducement of a quick death of a person suffering from an incurable and painful disease or in an irreversible coma. One of the elements incorporated into many definitions is that of intentionality – the death must be intended, rather than being accidental, and the intent of the action must be a “merciful death”.

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On 25th May 1995 it became the first jurisdiction in the world to pass laws which allowed a doctor to end the life of a terminally ill patient at the patient’s request. There are different laws for euthanasia in countries like Netherlands, Canada, Belgium, Colombia and Luxembourg.

The first plea for euthanasia filed was of  Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug, an Indian nurse who was at the centre of attention in the court case on euthanasia after spending years in a vegetative state as a result of sexual assault. On 24th January 2011, the supreme court responded to the plea for mercy killing filed by journalist Pinki Virani, by setting up a medical panel to examine her. However, the court rejected the petition on 7th March 2011. Aruna died from pneumonia on May 2015 after being in a persistent vegetative state for nearly 42 years.

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However, on 9th March 2018, the Supreme Court stated that the right to dignity includes right to refuse treatment and die with dignity. As of now the fundamental right to a “meaningful existence” includes a person’s choice to die without suffering. Chief justice Misra, in a common judgment with Justice A.M. Khanwilkar, said it was time to “alleviate the agony of an individual” and stand by the right to dignified passing.

The Chief Justice’s judgment includes specific guidelines to test the validity of a living will, by whom it should be certified, when and how it should come into effect, etc.. the guidelines also cover a situation where there is no living will and how to approach a plea for passive euthanasia.

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However, Justice Chandrachud read from his judgment that the sanctity of life included the dignity of the individual. He said, “ Free will include the right of a person to refuse medical treatment”. Later he added, “ To deprive a person of dignity at the end of life is to deprive him of a meaningful existence”.    

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  The right to life and liberty envisaged under Article 21 of the Constitution is meaningless unless it encompasses within its sphere individual dignity.And with the passage of time SC has expanded the spectrum to include the right to live with dignity as a component of the right to life and liberty.

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