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The last rights of staying alive

india Updated: Mar 08, 2011 22:49 IST
Hindustan Times
Supreme Court

By all counts, the raging debate on euthanasia will not die down even if the Indian Parliament is to pass a law on it tomorrow. Yet, the Supreme Court’s order on Monday — clearing the way for passive euthanasia — is a big leap forward and will hopefully push legislators to tackle the issue without further delay.

The court made it clear that the guidelines for passive euthanasia (withholding medical treatment for terminally ill patients) would be in force until Parliament enacts a proper law. The court, however, is not in favour of active euthanasia that involves the use of lethal substances to end a patient’s life.

Understandably, for the legislators too, it will not be easy: euthanasia, like life itself, is a grey area with too many conflicting views. Take for example, the view of religious leaders. While most warn the State against ‘playing god’, no matter what the medical condition of the person is, the concept of voluntary death does exist in Jainism and Hinduism (only for seers, one Vedic scholar clarified).

Among doctors, arguably this group is best positioned to take the all-important call, the divide is sharp. While most, at least publicly, swear by the Hippocratic Oath (‘I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel’), there are also many experienced doctors who insist that ‘quality’ is more important than ‘right’ to life, especially in the case of Aruna Shanbaug.

The former nurse of Mumbai’s KEM Hospital has been lying in a permanent vegetative state for the last 38 years. Passive euthanasia is not unknown in India. It has existed for years because often it’s economics that decides the viability of keeping a terminally ill patient alive. But ‘quality’ of life should not be the preserve of only people like us who can decide for ourselves.

A certain standard of life must be there even for people as unfortunate as Shanbaug. A similar deep divide on euthanasia also exists among lawyers. Whichever way we look at it, the Shanbaug case is one of the rarest of rare cases and, therefore, cannot be a template for future decisions on the issue.

The order will now prise open the debate a little more: why can’t we have active euthanasia like The Netherlands? The oft repeated argument: the law can be misused by family members of a terminally ill patient. But aren’t all laws open to misuse? There has to be strict safeguards and a case-by-case decision taken on medical evidence with some more-than-minimum requirement to keep a patient alive. After all, not all those like Shanbaug have caregivers as dedicated as the KEM hospital staff.