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Killing them softly

I’ve been tying my brain in knots trying to understand what they mean by passive euthanasia. The Supreme Court recently gave permission for it, provided it’s ordered by a court and supervised by doctors.

india Updated: Mar 26, 2011 23:54 IST
Manas Chakravarty

I’ve been tying my brain in knots trying to understand what they mean by passive euthanasia. The Supreme Court recently gave permission for it, provided it’s ordered by a court and supervised by doctors.

I had heard of euthanasia, which is a long word for mercy-killing, but I had never heard of passive mercy-killing. Indeed, the idea that one could kill passively seems rather odd.

But there has to be some sense to it, if the Supreme Court says so. If you run over a guy in your car, that would be active killing. But if you see someone bleeding to death on the road and you don’t take him to hospital, I suppose that would be passive killing. We seem to have a lot of passive killing in this country.

The first is the kind the Supreme Court talks about. Someone’s almost a vegetable and there’s no hope he can get better and he can’t live without being hooked up to a heart-lung machine. So a long-suffering relative gets the court’s permission to unhook him and the doctors pull the plug. That’s Passive Euthanasia.

Then there’s the common or garden kind. A person gets an incurable disease, his loving family puts him in hospital where he remains for months, steadily eating into their meagre savings. Unable to cope, the family shifts him to a cheaper nursing home and decide they can’t afford the expensive medicines any longer. The patient dies. It might not exactly be an act of mercy for him, but it’s certainly one for his family. We could call this Middle Class Passive Euthanasia.

The next kind is even more common. Here the person who falls sick can’t afford it at all. He can’t afford to pay for the battery of tests or for an operation and as for post-operative care, it’s out of the question because he has to work every day to make ends meet. So these people shrug off those tell-tale signs of heart congestion and work till they drop.

This is also passive killing, though opinion may be divided on whether it’s euthanasia. We’ll call it Passive Mass Euthanasia.

And then there are the poorest people. For them, it’s not so much a question of being sick as of being hungry and malnourished. They’re the people talked about when we say India ranks near the bottom of the Global Hunger Index.

They’re the 2.1 million children who, according to the United Nations, die every year in India — four every minute — from preventable diseases like diarrhoea, typhoid, malaria. Their malnourished bodies are weak and they often live in unhygienic surroundings. They are thus easy prey for diseases. You don’t need court permission for pulling the plug on them, nor do doctors have to do the deed.

What should we call this? It’s difficult to call it mercy-killing, especially when it comes to kids — they’re somehow able to laugh and play even in filthy hovels or on half-filled bellies.

Amartya Sen compared the fate of these people with the millions dead in famines. He wrote, “Despite the gigantic size of excess mortality in the Chinese famine, the extra mortality in India from regular deprivation in normal times vastly overshadows the former.” Should we call it mass extermination then? A silent slaughter of the lambs? A holocaust?

No, because these deaths are completely non-violent. But then the Supreme Court says you can also kill passively, without violence, just by looking the other way. Perhaps we should call it passive genocide?

Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint
The views expressed by the author are personal