Over four years after Aruna Shanbaug’s case led to a Supreme Court verdict legalising passive euthanasia in India, nothing seems to have moved forward.
The verdict that gave thousands of patients living in a vegetative state the right to have artificial life-support systems withdrawn to end a life of misery under “guarded conditions” was hailed as landmark by jurists and activists alike.
But four years later, no law has been enacted on the subject to replace the SC guidelines.
This despite the Law Commission recommending to the government in October 2012 to take steps to enact a proper law for allowing passive euthanasia, subject to certain safeguards.
The commission had suggested that the uncertainty over the issue may be removed and procedure prescribed by the SC may be refined at the earliest. It prepared a draft Medical Treatment of Terminally-ill Patients (Protection of Patients and Medical Practitioners) Bill for the government’s consideration.
Those demanding legalisation of euthanasia have been contending that “right to die with dignity” was included in the “right to live with dignity” guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. They also cite Indian cultural and religious traditions in Jainism and Hinduism that justify taking away one’s own life under certain circumstances.
But given the fact that successive governments have been evasive over the issue, the ball is now again in the court of the judiciary.
Acting on a petition filed by Common Cause, an NGO, the Supreme Court in July 2014 issued notices to all states asking them to articulate their response to the important issue.
A five-judge constitution chose to ignore attorney general Mukul Rohatgi’s submission that the issue entirely concerned the legislature and the judiciary should not take it up.
The Centre contended that passive euthanasia was against public policy and a form of suicide which could not be allowed. Permitting voluntary passive euthanasia would amount to abetment to suicide and attempt to commit suicide – which are criminal offences, Rohatgi had argued.
While the legislature inadvertently abdicates its responsibility of making laws on important issues in a rapidly changing Indian society, citizens are forced to look up to the Supreme Court even for matters that squarely fall in the legislature’s domain.