Passive euthanasia: a fundamental right to die with dignity

Shivendra Pratap Singh

Advocate

High Court Lucknow

Article

Reading Time:

Passive euthanasia is a highly debated and controversial topic in the legal and medical fraternity worldwide. The term “passive euthanasia” refers to the deliberate withholding or withdrawal of medical treatment, with the intent to hasten the death of a terminally ill or comatose patient who has no hope of recovery.

It is often seen as a more humane way to end the suffering of the patient and their families. In India, the Supreme Court has given several landmark judgments regarding passive euthanasia, which have been significant in shaping the legal framework around this practice.

One of the most significant judgments on passive euthanasia in India was the Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug v. Union of India, (2011) 4 SCC 454. In 1973, Aruna Shanbaug, a nurse at the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Mumbai, was brutally raped and left in a vegetative state.

For the next 42 years, she remained in a persistent vegetative state, with no hope of recovery. In 2011, a petition was filed in the Supreme Court seeking permission to withdraw her life support. The case garnered national attention and sparked a debate on the legality of passive euthanasia in India.

In 2014, the Supreme Court delivered its landmark judgment in the Aruna Shanbaug case. The court held that passive euthanasia could be permitted under certain conditions. The court recognized the right to die with dignity as a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. Right to die with dignity is a fundamental right as held in Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab, (1996) 2 SCC 648.

It also laid down guidelines for passive euthanasia, which included the requirement of a high court order, a medical board to examine the patient and give an opinion on the condition of the patient, and the presence of a close relative or friend of the patient during the withdrawal of life support.

In another landmark judgment in Common Cause v. Union of India, (2018) 5 SCC 1, the Supreme Court of India allowed passive euthanasia with the approval of a medical board and the consent of the patient or their next of kin.

The court also laid down guidelines for the procedure to be followed in such cases, which included the requirement of a medical board to examine the patient and give an opinion on the condition of the patient, the presence of a close relative or friend of the patient during the withdrawal of life support, and the need for a judicial magistrate to record the proceedings.

The Supreme Court’s rulings on passive euthanasia have been significant in providing legal clarity on this contentious issue. The court has recognized the right to die with dignity as a fundamental right, while also balancing the need to protect the sanctity of life.

The guidelines laid down by the court have ensured that the procedure for passive euthanasia is followed with utmost care and caution, with the involvement of medical professionals, legal authorities, and the family members of the patient.

The principles relating to the procedure for execution of advance directive and provided the guidelines to give effect to passive euthanasia in both circumstances, namely, where there are advance directives and where there are none are so immense that since the 2018 judgment not a single case of advance medical directive has been witnessed.

Therefore, in 2023 a miscellaneous application was moved by the petition of Common Cause Cas 2018 so simplify the procedure laid down by the Supreme Court in termination of life. Now the entire procedure is two tier. The necessity of Judicial Magistrate has been removed.

However, the legality of passive euthanasia continues to be a contentious issue, with some arguing that it goes against the sanctity of life and the Hippocratic oath taken by medical professionals. There are also concerns about the potential for abuse, with fears that passive euthanasia could be used to justify the premature ending of life.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s rulings on passive euthanasia have provided a legal framework for this practice, which ensures that it is only carried out in the rarest of cases, and only after careful consideration of all the facts and circumstances surrounding the patient’s condition.

In conclusion, passive euthanasia remains a highly emotive issue, with arguments for and against it. However, the Supreme Court’s rulings have been a significant step in providing legal clarity and a framework for this practice. The court’s recognition of the right to die with dignity as a fundamental right is a significant milestone in India’s legal history, and has set a precedent for other countries to follow.