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Killing with kindness?

After years of watching patients die after prolonged suffering, many of the country’s best medical minds support a patient’s right to die with dignity. Sanchita Sharma reports.

health and fitness Updated: Feb 14, 2009 22:44 IST
Killing with kindness?

“I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and judgment and never harm anyone. I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan…”

These lines from the Hippocratic Oath are almost always quoted by those against euthanasia — a terminally-ill person’s right to die with dignity — to emphasise that assisting death of a patient, for whatever reason, goes against the grain of what doctors are supposed to do: save lives.

So I asked some senior doctors their views on euthanasia and their answers surprised me. Most of them believe that as healers, providing relief from insurmountable suffering as opposed to preserving life should be the primary goal of doctors. “As doctors, we have to take tough decisions every day and after a point tell ourselves, I’ve done my best, I can’t do more. When a patient is clearly brain dead, what is the sense in prolonging life indefinitely when you can use the medical facilities and time to save hundreds of others,” said one.

After years of watching patients die after prolonged suffering, many of the country’s best medical minds support a patient’s right to die with dignity. Take cancer, for instance. At times, surgery, chemotherapy, radiation treatment and advanced pain-management medication and devices — much as morphine pumps that constantly feed pain-killing morphine to the body — cannot manage the intractable, terrible pain of cancer. In these rarest of rare circumstances, if the patient and the family have given consent and three medical experts have certified that the condition cannot be treated or managed, euthanasia should be allowed,” said Dr GK Rath, chief, Institute-Rotary Cancer Hospital, AIIMS.

Many doctors agree. “You can’t be scared to have a law in place. Most human rights involve some risk of abuse and that’s why we need a strong law with safeguards to ensure it’s not abused by unscrupulous families, doctors and lawyers,” said Dr Sneh Bhargava, senior radiologist, Sitaram Bhartia Institute and former director, AIIMS.

Of course, there are some who believe that you can’t take a life under any circumstances. “Euthanasia can’t be permitted, the law does not and should not permit a person to take a life. You have to recognise a person’s right to life. How can anyone, a doctor or otherwise, assist suicide? Most countries the world over have rejected euthanasia and this law will never come in India,” said Dr A Sampath Kumar, chief, cardio-thoracic and vascular surgery, AIIMS, who has also authored a book called Patients’ Rights.