SC allows passive euthanasia by recognising 'living will' of terminally ill patients

Former nurse Aruna Shanbaug lay in a vegetative state for 42 years at KEM Hospital's room number 4

A Constitution Bench, led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, in three concurring opinions, upheld that the fundamental right to life and dignity includes right to refuse treatment and die with dignity. A per the court's guidelines, a family member or a friend of the terminally ill person can approach the High Court seeking passive euthanasia following which the court will set up a medical board.

The directions and guidelines laid down by it and its directive shall remain in force till a legislation is brought on the issue.

The decision was in response to a petition by a non-government organisation, which argued that a person with terminal illness should be given the right to refuse being placed on life support.

It is a medical power of attorney that allows an individual to appoint a trusted person to take health care decisions when the patient is not able to take such decisions.

The apex court, however, had observed that there should be adequate safeguards and implementation of living will be subject to medical board's certifying that the patient's comatose state is irreversible. If it is legal to passively allow or hasten death, what's to say an aged parent won't be hastened in favour of an inheritance, or a spouse have treatment withdrawn for the sake of a hefty insurance payout?

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Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the NGO, had said that under Article 21 (right to life) a person had the right to die peacefully without any suffering and must be allowed to create a living will for a time when he can not recover from an illness. "Dying is a part of the process of living".

Minakshi Biswas, research scholar and expert on euthanasia, said however that there are many factors to be considered before allowing passive euthanasia.

Justice Chandrachud said the issue of death and when to die transcends the boundaries of law, but the court has intervened because it also concerns the liberty and autonomy of the individual. Many believe that it is acceptable to withhold medical treatment and allowing the patient to die as it means that their suffering will stop once and for all. State of Punjab had held both euthanasia and assisted suicide not lawful in India.

Without regard to provisions in any other law, in cases where a medical practitioner withdraws treatment on the request of a patient, his action will be lawful. Previously, all forms of euthanasia were illegal. In a "living will", a person can make a statement in advance that their life should not be prolonged by putting them on a ventilator or an artificial support system.

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