Supreme Court allows passive euthanasia


Euthanasia refers to the practice of ending a life in a manner which relieves pain and suffering. According to the House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics, the precise definition of euthanasia is "a deliberate intervention undertaken with the express intention of ending a life, to relieve intractable suffering."

Euthanasia is categorized in different ways, which include voluntary, non-voluntary, or involuntary and active or passive. Euthanasia is usually used to refer to active euthanasia, and in this sense, euthanasia is usually considered to be criminal homicide, but voluntary, passive euthanasia is widely non-criminal.

The controversy surrounding euthanasia centers around a two-pronged argument by opponents which characterizes euthanasia as either voluntary "suicides", or as involuntary murders. (Hence, opponents argue that a broad policy of "euthanasia" is tantamount to eugenics). Much hinges on whether a particular death was considered an "easy", "painless", or "happy" one, or whether it was a "wrongful death". Proponents typically consider a death that increased suffering to be "wrongful", while opponents typically consider any deliberate death as "wrongful". "Euthanasia's" original meaning introduced the idea of a "rightful death" beyond that only found in natural deaths.

Euthanasia is the most active area of research in contemporary bioethics.

Like other terms borrowed from history, the "euthanasia" has had different meanings depending on usage. The first apparent usage of the term "euthanasia" belongs to the historian Suetonius who described how the Emperor Augustus, "dying quickly and without suffering in the arms of his wife, Livia, experienced the 'euthanasia' he had wished for." The word "euthanasia" was first used in a medical context by Francis Bacon in the 17th century, to refer to an easy, painless, happy death, during which it was a "physician's responsibility to alleviate the 'physical sufferings' of the body." Bacon referred to an "outward euthanasia"—the term "outward" he used to distinguish from a spiritual concept—the euthanasia "which regards the preparation of the soul."

EUTHANASIA OR mercy killing or Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS) is the bringing about of the gentle death of a patient in the case of a painful, chronic and incurable disease. Now, all these adjectives are of equal importance. A painful disease is one in which the patient suffers unbearable and excruciating pain. A chronic disease is a long lasting one and an incurable disease is one whose cure has not been found till date.

Netherlands was one of the first countries to legalize euthanasia followed by Canada, state of Oregon in USA and Columbia. The state of Oregon has a ‘Death with Dignity’ law, which has been in place for almost 10 years. It has allowed terminally ill patients to take legal, proscribed medication to end their suffering. The legalizing of euthanasia has been a bone of contention throughout the world and will continue to do so but no one asks a terminally ill patient the kind of pain he goes through. The individual should have at least the right to choose a graceful death for himself. Why should he be allowed to keep suffering day and night?

The essence of human life is to be able to live a dignified life but when some law forces you to live in intense pain and humiliation, there is something wrong with our society. Who are we to prolong the life of one who is suffering and has decided without any undue pressure that he would like to be put to rest? Obviously legalization of euthanasia should not include anyone wanting to end their life at the flimsiest of excuses but a patient should be allowed to decide when he has suffered enough.

Apart from the miserable pain, that the patient goes through, the trauma and the emotional turmoil his relatives go through is also immense. To see your close ones suffering and going through pain is not an easy sight. You wish the laws should be changed. After all as an individual, you decide where to marry, you decide where to work, and at the last hurdle of your life, you should be allowed to choose how do you want to end your life.

But this question cannot be answered so easily. The science of medicine has over the years seen miracles taking place. As long as the patient lives, there is hope. And as long as there is hope, anything can happen. With the new technological advancements taking place all around the globe, we could have cures for diseases like AIDS, cancer etc.

On the other hand, the chances of the legalization being misused are also very high. What if the patient is in coma and is unable to make a decision, should the relatives be allowed to make it? This is the era of family disputes over property and money. People could also get away with cold-blooded murder. Legalising voluntary Euthanasia would lead to involuntary euthanasia. In this society, full of greed and corruption anything is possible.

In a country like ours, the religious aspects also have to be considered before taking such decisions. The Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill” And even Islam does not allow anyone to take away life. Is our society mature enough to understand the implications of this? We have cases, where doctors are often beaten up if the patient was not treated properly, what would happen to a doctor if he merely suggested Euthanasia to the relatives? Will the relatives be able to understand the suffering of the patient?

Life is a gift, and even a life of pain is a life at least. Some people feel we don’t choose when to be born and we should not be given the right to choose when to die. On the contrary, others feel that a life of pain is not a life but an imposition and we should be at least allowed to end it in a dignified peaceful manner. Euthanasia could be legalized, but the laws would have to be very stringent. Every case will have to be carefully monitored taking into consideration the point of views of the patient, the relatives and the doctors. But whether Indian society is mature enough to face this, after all it’s a matter of life and death, is yet to be seen.

Medical science and technology have made great strides in recent years. The medical profession has today more power over life and death than they would chosen to have. They have power to prolong life where life seems to have lost its meaning and have power to terminate life without suffering. There are many points of view on euthanasia; legal, social and compassionate.

The debate on Euthanasia has again become a live issue in India as the Supreme Court of India in 1994 passed a verdict that attempted suicide is not a crime. According to the Indian Penal code, which was mainly adopted from British Penal Code, attempted suicide was a crime, punishable with years of imprisonment. With the recent medical knowledge gained by researchers and the opinions expressed by eminent psychiatrists all over the world, the judges in their verdict were sympathetic to those who attempted suicide. The Supreme Court of India is the highest court, authorised to interpret the constitution of India for legal matters. They gave the verdict that attempting suicide is a mental derangement and hence not to be considered as a crime. This signifies social approval of suicide and euthanasia which is assisted suicide.

Rejecting mercy killing plea, Supreme Court allows passive euthanasia

The Supreme Court held that causing the death of a person who in a permanent vegetative state — with no chance of recovery — by withdrawing artificial life-support is only an “omission” and not a “positive act of killing”.

Giving the aura of legality for the first time to an intentional method of causing death, a Bench of Justices Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra said “passive euthanasia,” a medical term used to explain withdrawal or withholding of artificial life support leading to the death of a person, is permissible on a case-by-case basis.

“The withdrawal of life support by the doctors is in law considered as an omission and not a positive step to terminate life. The latter would be euthanasia, a criminal offence under the present law in UK, USA and India,” the Bench said.

On the other hand, active euthanasia or the act of administering a patient with a legal drug to cause his or her death continues to remain illegal and a “positive step to terminate a life”, the Supreme Court said.

Krishna Iyer proposed legalisation of euthanasia
As the euthanasia issue came under spotlight in the wake of the landmark Supreme Court verdict, a move is afoot in Kerala, where the Law Reforms Commission has suggested legalising mercy killing under certain circumstances.

Eminent jurist Justice V R Krishna Iyer, who headed the commission set up by the LDF Government, had suggested legalising euthanasia in cases where 'death is the only salvation'.

Justice Iyer had said euthanasia should be legalised by abolishing the clause that makes attempt to suicide an offence.

The proposal, drawn up in the form of a draft bill, however, is pending with government for the last two years.

'Mercy killing could be considered in cases where death is the only salvation and preservation of life would be medically impossible and visited with insufferable physical or mental pain,' the proposal said.

It suggested that mercy killing should be carried out with the written sanction of three state-recognised doctors certifying that the patient under consideration is a fit case for euthanasia.

The draft proposal suggests that legal sanction could be accorded to euthanasia by abolishing section 309 of IPC, which holds attempt to commit suicide as an offence.

There should at the same time be a safeguard clause that no euthanasia shall be legal or be considered less than homicide, if it takes place without the written sanction of three doctors recognised by the state certifying in writing that the case of the patient is a fit case for euthanasia.

Justice Iyer noted the IPC of 'Victorian vintage' was drafted and enacted by 'McCauley, a great jurist of fossil vision, which today has ceased to be humanities spiritual and temporal norm. Necessarily, law must change when social philosophy changes. It is in this context two basic penal mutations have become necessary.'

The Supreme Court had on Monday dismissed a plea for mercy killing on behalf of a 60-year-old nurse Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug, living in a vegetative state for the last 37 years in a Mumbai hospital after a brutal sexual assault.





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