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'Should Right to Life includes Right to Die’ says Supreme Court

Article 21 of the Constitution of India talks about Right to Life. But right to life also includes right to die? Yes , now the Apex Court has held that right to life also includes right to die with dignity. But how far this decision is right and what are the loopholes in this decision.

The ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus said,

"Why should I fear death?
If I am, then death is not.
If death is, then I am not.
Why should I fear that which
can only exist when I do not?"

Recently in Common Cause vs. Union of India, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by the Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra and comprising Justices A.K. Sikri, A.M. Khanwilkar, D.Y. Chandrachud and Ashok Bhushan, issued guidelines in recognition of “living will” made by terminally-ill patients and held that right to die with dignity is a fundamental right under Article 21. The Supreme Court has also held that the right of the individual to die with dignity takes precedence over the interest of the State in preserving the sanctity of life.

“Life and death are inseparable. Every moment our bodies undergo change… life is not disconnected from death. Dying is a part of the process of living.”

Justice Chandrachud

This is not the first case which raise the issue of ‘Right to Die’. There are a series of cases which dealt with this issue.

In P. Rathinam’s case the Court declared Section 309 IPC ultra vires and held that it deserved to be effaced from the statute book to humanize our penal laws.

In Gian Kaur’s case A five-judge bench, headed by Justice J. S. Verma held that both assisted suicide and euthanasia were unlawful.The bench stated that the right to life did not include the right to die.

In Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug vs Union Of India, the Supreme Court in March 2011 legalised passive euthanasia in case of exceptional circumstances and under strict monitoring of the apex court. Aruna Shanbaug had been in a Persistent Vegetative State after a brutal rape until her death in 2015.

In Common Cause v. Union of India a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court made passive euthanasia legal if the patient suffers from a terminal illness or is in a persistent vegetative state.He can decline to prolong his life with life support measures and provided for the "living will" which is "advance directive". But what do you mean by ‘living will’? A ‘living will’ is a concept where a patient can give consent that allows withdrawal of life support systems if the individual is reduced to a permanent vegetative state with no real chance of survival.

It is very important to discuss the difference between Active and Passive Euthanasia as the Apex Court legalized Passive Euthanasia and not the Active Euthanasia.

Active euthanasia is also known as positive or aggressive euthanasia.It means using lethal substances to cause the intentional death of a person,that is,giving lethal injection to a person who is terribly ill.

Passive euthanasia is also called negative non-aggressive euthanasia.It means withdrawing of life support system or withdrawal of life saving medical treatment. For example, switching off life-support machines, disconnecting a feeding tube, not carrying out a life-extending operation, not administering life-extending drugs etc.

As India is the land of various religions, very interesting question arises here. Will religious communities support or oppose the concept of euthanasia? Right to life may overrule the right to die with dignity in India as India is a secular state and every religion has its own perspective. Some religious communities oppose mercy killing while some support euthanasia. According to both Sunnis and Shias, killing a terminally ill person, is considered as an act of disobedience against God. Similarly, Indian Christians are also against euthanasia. However, in Jains there is a concept of ‘Sallekhana’ and ‘Santhara’ which means the religious practice of voluntarily fasting to death by gradually reducing the intake of food and liquids.So it is difficult to say how people will react to this change.

But as the concept of euthanasia is progressing,what are the drawbacks under this? Can wicked mind people misuse the law to get rid of their elders or spouses? I guess it is very difficult for poor and vulnerable people to survive with this law.The court also acknowledged the possibility that this could be misused to grab property.What should be the stage where passive euthanasia can be permitted?The Supreme Court noted that these rights cannot be made absolute and must be subject to regulatory mechanisms. It is the duty of the Courts to prevent the abuse of the process of law.

To conclude the Supreme Court in Common Cause case said that right to die with dignity is a fundamental right and an adult human being having sound mind has right to refuse medical treatment,that is, where a patient has already made a valid Advance Directive that he does not wish to be treated, then such directive has to be given effect to.

"A dreadful, painful death on a rational but incapacitated terminally ill patient are an affront to human dignity".

Justice A.K. Sikri

Terminating one’s life is a very courageous decision. Some of you may call it a coward decision but some call it as a brave act. What do you think. Please tell us in the comments below.