It is undoubtedly Parliament’s duty to make compassionate laws to protect the vulnerable among us. The judiciary rendered signal service in the tragic Aruna Shanbaug case of 2011, by which “passive euthanasia” became legal in India, as it is elsewhere in Europe or the United States. Relatives or their “next friend”, if those suffering from irreversible medical conditions of brain-dead or vegetative state don’t have family, can make an intelligent choice on ending the misery and life of such patients. This is done by pulling the plug on medical care, which too can only be seen as passive regardless of what hospitals and doctors may claim. The roadblocks lie in taking this further and allowing a “living will” which the government is resisting, saying there are legal, religious and social implications in legalising the practice of a sane and fit person choosing to die if reduced to a vegetative state in future.
The government may be right in its judgment in trusting the legislature to come up with a comprehensive, compassionate solution. Judicial wisdom is acceptable in pointing the way, but it’s up to the Law Commission and the legislatures to ensure proper laws exist whose letter and spirit can’t be misused by, say, greedy relatives in ending the lives of sick rich people so that inheritances may be enjoyed sooner. Once the “right to die with dignity” is granted to persons in a vegetative state and thought to be beyond medical help, there’s no reason why it can’t be extended to those who fear they may suffer the same fate someday. If the right to die in such extreme cases is deemed a fundamental right, as the government’s lawyers argued before the Supreme Court Constitution Bench, it should become possible to grant the same right to those who may suffer this unfortunate plight.
Several safeguards must be built in. Middle class families can be spared suffering in having to pay endless hospital bills if their kin are reduced to a state in which there’s no guarantee life support systems plus medication can bring the person suffering a terminal illness back to a state of normality. Of course, competent medical boards must be established in virtually every district to decide all such cases, when the question of ending prolonged agony, pain and suffering crops up. What happens when a person leaves specific clauses in his will for his life to be ended is what must now be clearly defined. The judges’ sympathy for elders, who may additionally suffer from the greed of relatives, and the value of a human being’s life should be upheld even in a “passive euthanasia” situation. It would, however, be ideal if the “living will” is also recognised in law. Perhaps judicial wisdom can help convince legislators.