SC upholds right to die with dignity: Living will, passive euthanasia allowed

Herbert Rhodes
March 11, 2018

It was also seen to have adopted a misconstrued construction of the decision of the 1998 Gian Kaur case where a constitutional bench had held that the right to life did not include the right to die.

The court specified that family members of terminally ill patients can seek passive euthanasia for a patient by petitioning the court, which would then appoint a committee of doctors to evaluate the necessity of the petition.

The order was passed by a five-judge Constitution bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra.

The top court had in 2011 recognised passive euthanasia in the Aruna Shanbaug case by which it had permitted withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment from patients not in a position to make an informed decision.

In a landmark judgement, the top court laid down comprehensive principles relating to the procedure for execution of advance directive or "living will" and spelt out guidelines and safeguards to give effect to passive euthanasia.

Though the government took the lead in decriminalising suicide and is ready with a draft legislation formalising passive euthanasia, it struck a contradictory note in opposing living wills, essentially a person's desire to exit from life at a point of no return.

By the landmark verdict, The Supreme Court of India has declared "passive euthanasia" legal on March9th2018 including the "right to die" under the fundamental right of right to dignity.

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As per definition, it's a direction issued by a terminally ill patient that "he or she... shall or shall not be given medical treatment in future when or he she becomes terminally ill".

A living will is a written legal document by way of which a patient can categorically give consent in advance about the medical treatment s/he will be undergoing.

Justice Chandrachud said the issue of death and when to die transcends the boundaries of law, but the court has intervened because it also concerns the liberty and autonomy of the individual. "A failure to recognise advance medical directives (or living will) may amount to non-facilitation of the right to smoothen the dying process and the right to live with dignity".

Passive euthanasia entails a patient being allowed to die by limiting medical intervention, not escalating already aggressive treatment, withholding or withdrawing artificial life support in cases that are judged to be medically futile.

Dr Ravi Bapat, former dean of the KEM Hospital, who was the first to find Shanbaug in the basement after she was brutally assaulted, did not react to the Supreme Court's verdict.

He also said that a having a "living will" from the patient to stop medical treatment at a certain stage - such as when he/she is brain dead or clinically dead - helps remove regret or guilt for relatives and "criminal action against doctors". "Without pronouncing any order on that prayer, the court invited a constitution bench to resolve the matter on whether to allow euthanasia or not".

When the living will or medical directive is produced by the family to the treating doctor, the hospital shall constitute a Medical Board of three doctors of minimum 20 years standing to examine the patient and the feasibility of executing the "living will". The Bill mandates that the medical practitioner must inform the patient of all treatment options, and suggest or provide palliative care to make life less painful. In active euthanasia, a patient is put to death through a lethal injection.

Other reports by TheSundaySentinel

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