As the debate over legalising passive euthanasia gathers force, the government has shied away from taking a definite stand at this stage, saying the issue was still under consideration.
In an affidavit filed before the SC, the ministry of health and family affairs said it had initiated an exercise in 2014 to get public feedback on the Law Commission of India’s recommendation favouring passive euthanasia but did not proceed after a public interest litigation (PIL) on the contentious issue was referred to a Constitution bench.
But the affidavit said two government-constituted expert committees had advised to let a terminally ill patient decide whether he or she should not be kept on life support in case there is no hope for a cure. However, the committee did not support the concept of a living will under which a person can opt for no treatment if he is diagnosed with a serious disease.
Interestingly, in 2006 the government had declined to introduce a bill on passive euthanasia for various reasons. On January 15, the SC asked the Centre if it was contemplating to regulate passive euthanasia. The petitioner, Common Cause, has demanded legalising passive euthanasia and a living will. The bench specifically wanted to know as to who will decide whether a patient can or cannot be cured.
The ministry affidavit evades SC’s queries. Instead, it recalls how in 2006 it had rejected a bill regulating euthanasia. According to the ministry, the Hippocratic Oath is against the intentional and voluntary killings of patients. Progression of medical science to relieve pain, suffering, rehabilitation and treatment of so-called diseases will suffer a setback if passive euthanasia is allowed.
An individual’s wish to die may be a fleeting desire out of transient depression and this may be treatable by psychiatric care, the ministry said. It had even questioned the expertise of medical professionals to have a final say on whether a disease is incurable and a patient is permanently invalid.
In India, the SC in 2011 had allowed passive euthanasia with certain strict safeguards. It said life support system can be withdrawn only on the recommendation of a panel of doctors after permission of the high court concerned on an application by family members or next friend.