Supreme Court allows euthanasia, mercy killing

Stating that human beings have the right to die with dignity, the Supreme Court (SC) today allowed passive euthanasia, but made sure to set out strict guidelines that will govern when it is permitted.

Henceforth, no patient will be forced to remain in a permanently vegetative state after the doctors fail to revive him/her, even with most advanced medical aid.

The top court also allowed an individual to draft a living will specifying that they not be put on life support if they slip into an incurable coma in the future. 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.

The order was passed today by a five-judge Constitution bench of Chief Justice (CJI) Dipak Misra and Justices A K Sikri, A M Khanwilkar, D Y Chandrachud and Ashok Bhushan. The apex court’s order came on a plea by the NGO ‘Common Cause’.

Though the judges gave four separate opinions, all of them were unanimous that a ‘living will’ should be allowed, because an individual should not be allowed to continue suffering in a vegetative state when they don’t wish to continue living.

The top court today also set in place strict guidelines for carrying out the mandate of a ‘living will’. The court did this by specifying who is authorised to give effect to it. The court also talked of involving a medical board to determine whether the patient in a vegetative state could be revived or not.

The SC said it was aware of the pitfalls in giving effect to ‘living wills’, considering the property disputes relatives have. Therefore, the SC said the relatives of a patient who has not written a ‘living will’ can approach high courts asking for passive euthanasia.

The NGO had approached the court seeking a direction for the recognition of a ‘living will’ and contended that when a medical expert said that a person afflicted with terminal disease had reached a point of no return, then they should be given the right to refuse being put on life support.

“How can a person be told that he/she does not have right to prevent torture on his body? Right to life includes right to die with dignity. A person cannot be forced to live on support of ventilator. Keeping a patient alive by artificial means against his/her wishes is an assault on his/her body,” the petition said.

The Centre, however, had told the court that the government had in principle decided to decriminalise attempt to suicide which at present is an offence punishable by up to one year jail term under Section 309 of Indian Penal Code. (Agencies)