In a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court on Monday legalised passive euthanasia, giving thousands of patients living in a vegetative state all over the country the right to have artificial life-support systems withdrawn to enable them to end a life of misery.
A bench of Justice Markandey Katju and Justice Gyan Sudha Misra however said the right to permit a terminally ill patient to refuse medical treatment would be given under ‘guarded conditions” to prevent its misuse. The bench ruled that active euthanasia, which involves giving terminally ill patients lethal drugs to end their lives, could not be allowed as it is unconstitutional.
The court delivered this judgement while disposing of a petition by social activist Pinki Virani who sought euthanasia for former Mumbai hospital nurse Aruna Shanbaug, 60, who has been living in a vegetative state for 37 years after being raped and strangled by a sweeper in the hospital premises.
The bench laid down a procedure to be followed in case a patient or his or her family opt for passive euthanasia. The guidelines include seeking a declaration from the high court after getting clearance from a medical board and state government.
“If a person consciously and voluntarily refuses to take life-saving medical treatment, it’s not a crime,” the bench said.
In the absence of any legislation on passive euthanasia, the SC said its ruling would be the law until Parliament legislates on the matter.
The court rejected the Centre’s contention that euthanasia should not be permitted in any form as India is still still a “backward and emotional country”. It referred to various international judgments on the subject and said passive euthanasia should be allowed if a patient wishes for it. In case its non-voluntary application, the patient’s close relative or a friend should give his or her consent.
Passive euthanasia is usually defined as withdrawing medical treatment with the intention of causing a patient's death. It can be voluntary or non-voluntary.
The court, however, dismissed Virani's petition saying she has no locus standi in the case. Though the court praised Virani for espousing the cause, it said she could not be considered Shanbaug's friend and did not have the right to move such a petition. It said that in the absence of a family, the petition could be filed by the KEM Hospital's nursing staff that has been looking after her for 37 years and ensured that not even a single bedsore was reported.
The court had constituted a medical board of three doctors from Mumbai to examine Shanbaug and submit a report on her physical condition.
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