Right to Die, Expanding horizons of Article 21
“I am not afraid of being dead, I am just afraid of what one might have to go through to get there.”
Article 21 though couched in negative language, confers on every person the fundamental right to life and personal liberty. The two rights have been given paramount position by our Courts. The right to life which is the most fundamental of all is also the most difficult to define. Certainly it cannot be confined to a guarantee against taking away of life; it must have a wider application.
With reference to a corresponding provision in the 5th and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution, in Munn v. Illinois, Field, J. spoke of the right to life in the following words:
“By the term ‘life’ as here used something more is meant than a mere animal existence. The inhibition against its deprivation extends to all those limbs and faculties by which life is enjoyed. The provision equally prohibits the mutilation of the body by the amputation of an arm or leg, or the putting out of an eye, or the destruction of any other organ of the body through which the soul communicates with the outer world.”
The term ‘Euthanasia’ is derived from a Greek word ‘euthanatos’ which means easy death. Euthanasia more loosely termed as mercy killing, basically means to take a deliberate action with the express intention of ending a life to relieve persistent suffering. The practice raises a number of agonizing moral dilemmas:
- Is it right to end the life of a terminally ill patient who is undergoing severe pain and suffering?
- Under what circumstances can euthanasia be justifiable?
- Is there a moral difference between killing someone and letting them die?
At the heart of these arguments are the different ideas that people have about the meaning and value of human existence.
There are two classifications of Euthanasia namely, Voluntary Euthanasia, where the person wants to die and says so. Such as refusing burdensome medical treatment, and In-voluntary Euthanasia, where the person cannot make a decision or cannot make their wishes known. Such as if the person is in coma.
Further, there are two procedural classifications of Euthanasia, which are-
- Passive Euthanasia: This is when life sustaining treatments are withheld. Such as antibiotics necessary for continuance of life. It occurs when the patient dies because the medical practitioners either don’t do something necessary to keep the patient alive, or when they stop doing something that is keeping the patient alive.
- Active Euthanasia: This is when lethal substances or forces are used to end the patient’s life. It includes life ending actions conducted by the patient or somebody else. It is a more controversial subject than passive euthanasia.
The question whether right to die is included in Art. 21 of the Constitution of India came for consideration for the first time before the Bombay High Court in State of Maharashtra v. Maruty Sripati Dubal The Bombay High Court held that the right to life guaranteed by Art. 21 includes a right to die, and consequently the court struck down Section 309, IPC which provides punishment for attempt to commit suicide by a person as unconstitutional.
In P. Ranthinam v. Union of India a Division Bench of the Supreme Court agreeing with the view of Bombay High Court in Maruty Sripati Dubal case held that a person has a “right to die” and declared Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code unconstitutional. However, the Court rejected the plea that euthanasia should be permitted by law. The Judges said that they would not decide this point as it was beyond the scope of the present petition.
In Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab a five Judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court overruled the P. Ranthinam’s case and, rightly, held that “right to life” under Art. 21 of the Constitution does not include “right to die” or “right to be killed”. “The right to die” is inherently inconsistent with the “right to life” as is “death with life”.
The need to change euthanasia laws in India was triggered by the case of Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug v. Union of India & Ors.
A writ petition was filed by Ms. Pinki Virani claiming to be the next friend of Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug with a prayer for direction to the respondent to stop force-feeding and let Aruna die peacefully. Aruna was a staff nurse in King Edward Memorial Hospital, Parel, Mumbai. On 27th November 1973, she was attacked by a sweeper, Sohanlal Bhartha Valmiki, of the same hospital. Valmiki strangulated Shanbaug with a dog chain around her neck and yanking her back with it. The attack cut off oxygen supply from her brain leaving her blind, deaf, paralyzed and in a vegetative state.
On March 07, 2011, the Supreme Court turned down the plea filed by journalist Pinki Virani on euthanasia for Shanbaug. While the two judge bench laid down tough guidelines under which passive euthanasia could be legalized through a high court-monitored mechanism.
With the passage of time, the Court have expanded the spectrum of Article 21 to include within it right to die with dignity. The Supreme Court on March 09, 2018 in case of Common Cause (A Regd. Society) v. Union of India and Another, legalized passive euthanasia and approved living will to provide terminally ill patients or those in persistent and incurable vegetative state (PVS) a dignified exit by refusing medical treatment or life support.
A legislation permitting passive euthanasia titled “Treatment of Terminally Ill Patients Bill, 2016” is currently pending in Parliament. The Bill allows patients to take a decision to withhold medical treatment for themselves, provided that they have taken an informed decision and are of sound mind. It provides protection to patients and medical practitioners from any liability for withdrawing medical treatment.
As of March 2018, human euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia, Luxembourg, Canada and India. Assisted Suicide is legal in Switzerland, Germany, Japan, and in the United States of Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Vermont, Montana, Washington DC, and California.
At times it can be a difficult issue. On one hand, we do not want to take a person’s life into our own hands and end it prematurely. On the other hand, we do not want to prolong the process of dying more than necessary-that is, we want to preserve life, but not prolong death. I can understand at the individual level that in some cases you wish it was all over with, but the problem is as a society you have to choose what’s going to be your norm. We have this idea that what happens to me is nobody’s business but the problem with euthanasia is it requires another person to do it, and it requires a complicit society to authorize it.
Dr. Pandey J.N., CONSTITUTIONAL LAWS OF INDIA, Central Law Agency, 53rd Edn, 2016
Shukla V.N., CONSTITUTION OF INDIA, Eastern Book Company, 13th Edn, 2017
Nordqvist Christian, WHAT ARE EUTHANASIA AND ASSISTED SUICIDE, Medical News Today, Available at: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/182951.php
 94 U.S. 113.
 1987 Cr LJ 549
 (1994) 3 SCC 394
 (1996) 2 SCC 648
 A.I.R. 2011 SC 1290
Harshit Sharma, Student Editor at Legal Desire