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Euthanasia: The Supreme Court Of India In Aruna Shanbag Case

With regard to the legal issues in the case of Aruna Shanbag v. Union of India, it may be noted that euthanasia is of two types: active and passive. Active euthanasia entails the use of lethal substances or forces to kill a person e.g. a lethal injection given to a person with terminal cancer who is in terrible agony. Passive euthanasia entails withholding of medical treatment for continuance of life, e.g. withholding of antibiotics where without giving it a patient is likely to die, or removing the heart lung machine, from a patient in coma.

The general legal position all over the world seems to be that while active euthanasia is illegal unless there is legislation permitting it, passive euthanasia is legal even without legislation provided certain conditions and safeguards are maintained.

A further categorization of euthanasia is between voluntary euthanasia and non voluntary euthanasia. Voluntary euthanasia is where the consent is taken from the patient, whereas non voluntary euthanasia is where the consent is unavailable e.g. when the patient is in coma, or is otherwise unable to give consent. While there is no legal difficulty in the case of the former, the latter poses several problems, which the Supreme Court of India addresses.

Active Euthanasia

As already stated above active euthanasia is a crime all over the world except where permitted by legislation. In India active euthanasia is illegal and a crime under section 302 or at least section 304 IPC. Physician assisted suicide is a crime under section 306 IPC (abetment to suicide).

Active euthanasia is taking specific steps to cause the patient's death, such as injecting the patient with some lethal substance, e.g. sodium pentothal which causes a person deep sleep in a few seconds, and the person instantaneously and painlessly dies in this deep sleep. 43. A distinction is sometimes drawn between euthanasia and physician assisted dying, the difference being in who administers the lethal medication. In euthanasia, a physician or third party administers it, while in physician assisted suicide it is the patient himself who does it, though on the advice of the doctor. In many countries/States the latter is legal while the former is not.

The Difference
The difference between "active" and "passive" euthanasia is that in active euthanasia, something is done to end the patient's life' while in passive euthanasia, something is not done that would have preserved the patient's life.

An important idea behind this distinction is that in "passive euthanasia" the doctors are not actively killing anyone; they are simply not saving him. While we usually applaud someone who saves another person's life, we do not normally condemn someone for failing to do so. If one rushes into a burning building and carries someone out to safety, he will probably be called a hero. But if one sees a burning building and people screaming for help, and he stands on the sidelines -- whether out of fear for his own safety, or the belief that an inexperienced and ill-equipped person like himself would only get in the way of the professional firefighters, or whatever -- if one does nothing, few would judge him for his inaction. One would surely not be prosecuted for homicide. (At least, not unless one started the fire in the first place.)

Thus, proponents of euthanasia say that while we can debate whether active euthanasia should be legal, there can be no debate about passive euthanasia: You cannot prosecute someone for failing to save a life. Even if you think it would be good for people to do X, you cannot make it illegal for people to not do X, or everyone in the country who did not do X today would have to be arrested.

Some persons are of the view that the distinction is not valid. They give the example of the old joke about the child who says to his teacher, "Do you think it's right to punish someone for something that he didn't do?" "Why, of course not," the teacher replies. "Good," the child says, "because I didn't do my homework."

In fact we have many laws that penalize people for what they did not do. A person cannot simply decide not to pay his income taxes, or not bother to send his/her children to school (where the law requires sending them), or not to obey a policeman's order to put down one's gun.

However, the Supreme Court is of the opinion that the distinction is valid, as has been explained in some details by Lord Goff in Airedale's case (infra) which is being discussed below:

Legislation In Some Countries Relating To Euthanasia Or Physician Assisted Death

Although in the present case the court was dealing with a case related to passive euthanasia, it would be of some interest to note the legislations in certain countries permitting active euthanasia. These are given below.

Euthanasia in the Netherlands is regulated by the "Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide (Review Procedures) Act", 2002. It states that euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are not punishable if the attending physician acts in accordance with the criteria of due care. These criteria concern the patient's request, the patient's suffering (unbearable and hopeless), the information provided to the patient, the presence of reasonable alternatives, consultation of another physician and the applied method of ending life. To demonstrate their compliance, the Act requires physicians to report euthanasia to a review committee.

The legal debate concerning euthanasia in the Netherlands took off with the "Postma case" in 1973, concerning a physician who had facilitated the death of her mother following repeated explicit requests for euthanasia. While the physician was convicted, the court's judgment set out criteria when a doctor would not be required to keep a patient alive contrary to his will. This set of criteria was formalized in the course of a number of court cases during the 1980s. Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide (Review Procedures) Act took effect on April 1, 2002. It legalizes euthanasia and physician assisted suicide in very specific cases, under very specific circumstances. The law was proposed by Els Borst, the minister of Health. The procedures codified in the law had been a convention of the Dutch medical community for over twenty years. The law allows a medical review board to suspend prosecution of doctors who performed euthanasia when each of the following conditions is fulfilled:
  • The patient's suffering is unbearable with no prospect of improvement the patient's request for euthanasia must be voluntary and persist over time (the request cannot be granted when under the influence of others, psychological illness, or drugs)
  • The patient must be fully aware of his/her condition, prospects and options.
  • There must be consultation with at least one other independent doctor who needs to confirm the conditions mentioned above.
  • The death must be carried out in a medically appropriate fashion by the doctor or patient, in which case the doctor must be present.
  • The patient is at least 12 years old (patients between 12 and 16 years of age require the consent of their parents) The doctor must also report the cause of death to the municipal coroner in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Burial and Cremation Act. A regional review committee assesses whether a case of termination of life on request or assisted suicide complies with the due care criteria. Depending on its findings, the case will either be closed or, if the conditions are not met, brought to the attention of the Public Prosecutor.
  • Finally, the legislation offers an explicit recognition of the validity of a written declaration of the will of the patient regarding euthanasia (a "euthanasia directive"). Such declarations can be used when a patient is in a coma or otherwise unable to state if they wish to be euthanized.

Euthanasia remains a criminal offense in cases not meeting the law's specific conditions, with the exception of several situations that are not subject to the restrictions of the law at all, because they are considered normal medical practice. These are:
  • Stopping or not starting a medically useless (futile) treatment
  • Stopping or not starting a treatment at the patient's request.
  • Speeding up death as a side-effect of treatment necessary for alleviating serious suffering Euthanasia of children under the age of 12 remains technically illegal; however, Dr. Eduard Verhagen has documented several cases and, together with colleagues and prosecutors, has developed a protocol to be followed in those cases.

Prosecutors will refrain from pressing charges if this Groningen Protocol is followed. Switzerland:
Switzerland has an unusual position on assisted suicide: it is legally permitted and can be performed by non-physicians. However, euthanasia is illegal, the difference between assisted suicide and euthanasia being that while in the former the patient administers the lethal injection himself, in the latter a doctor or some other person administers it.

Article 115 of the Swiss penal code, which came into effect in 1942 (having been approved in 1937), considers assisting suicide a crime if, and only if, the motive is selfish. The code does not give physicians a special status in assisting suicide; although, they are most likely to have access to suitable drugs. Ethical guidelines have cautioned physicians against prescribing deadly drugs.

Switzerland seems to be the only country in which the law limits the circumstances in which assisted suicide is a crime, thereby decriminalising it in other cases, without requiring the involvement of a physician. Consequently, non-physicians have participated in assisted suicide. However, legally, active euthanasia e.g. administering a lethal injection by a doctor or some other person to a patient is illegal in Switzerland (unlike in Holland where it is legal under certain conditions).

The Swiss law is unique because (1) the recipient need not be a Swiss national, and (2) a physician need not be involved. Many persons from other countries, especially Germany, go to Switzerland to undergo euthanasia.

Belgium became the second country in Europe after Netherlands to legalize the practice of euthanasia in September 2002. The Belgian law sets out conditions under which suicide can be practised without giving doctors a licence to kill. Patients wishing to end their own lives must be conscious when the demand is made and repeat their request for euthanasia. They have to be under "constant and unbearable physical or psychological pain" resulting from an accident or incurable illness. The law gives patients the right to receive ongoing treatment with painkillers -- the authorities have to pay to ensure that poor or isolated patients do not ask to die because they do not have money for such treatment.

Unlike the Dutch legislation, minors cannot seek assistance to die. In the case of someone who is not in the terminal stages of illness, a third medical opinion must be sought. Every mercy killing case will have to be filed at a special commission to decide if the doctors in charge are following the regulations.

U.K., Spain, Austria, Italy, Germany, France, etc.

In none of these countries is euthanasia or physician assisted death legal. In January 2011 the French Senate defeated by a 170-142 vote a bill seeking to legalize euthanasia. In England, in May 2006 a bill allowing physician assisted suicide, was blocked, and never became law.

United States of America:
Active Euthanasia is illegal in all states in U.S.A., but physician assisted dying is legal in the states of Oregon, Washington and Montana. As already pointed out above, the difference between euthanasia and physician assisted suicide lies in who administers the lethal medication. In the former, the physician or someone else administers it, while in the latter the patient himself does so, though on the advice of the doctor.

Oregon was the first state in U.S.A. to legalize physician assisted death.

The Oregon legislature enacted the Oregon Death with Dignity Act, in 1997. Under the Death With Dignity Act, a person who sought physician-assisted suicide would have to meet certain criteria: 7 He must be an Oregon resident, at least 18 years old, and must have decision making capacity.
  • The person must be terminally ill, having six months or less to live.
  • The person must make one written and two oral requests for medication to end his/her life, the written one substantially in the form provided in the Act, signed, dated, witnessed by two persons in the presence of the patient who attest that the person is capable, acting voluntarily and not being coerced to sign the request. There are stringent qualifications as to who may act as a witness.
  • The patient's decision must be an `informed' one, and the attending physician is obligated to provide the patient with information about the diagnosis, prognosis, potential risks, and probable consequences of taking the prescribed medication, and alternatives, including, but not limited to comfort care, hospice care and pain control. Another physician must confirm the diagnosis, the patient's decision making capacity, and voluntariness of the patient's decisions.
  • Counseling has to be provided if the patient is suffering from depression or a mental disorder which may impact his judgment. 7 There has to be a waiting period of 15 days, next of kin have to be notified, and State authorities have to be informed.
  • The patient can rescind his decision at any time In response to concerns that patients with depression may seek to end their lives, the 1999 amendment provides that the attending physician must determine that the patient does not have `depression causing impaired judgment' before prescribing the medication. Under the law, a person who met all requirements could receive a prescription of a barbiturate that would be sufficient to cause death. However, the lethal injection must be administered by the patient himself, and physicians are prohibited from administering it. The landmark case to declare that the practice of euthanasia by doctors to help their patients shall not be taken into cognizance was Gonzalez vs Oregon decided in 2006.
After the Oregon Law was enacted about 200 persons have had euthanasia in Oregon.

Washington was the second state in U.S.A. which allowed the practice of physician assisted death in the year 2008 by passing the Washington Death with Dignity Act, 2008.

Montana was the third state (after Oregon and Washington) in U.S.A. to legalize physician assisted deaths, but this was done by the State judiciary and not the legislature. On December 31, 2009, the Montana Supreme Court delivered its verdict in the case of Baxter v. Montana permitting physicians to prescribe lethal indication. The court held that there was "nothing in Montana Supreme Court precedent or Montana statutes indicating that physician aid in dying is against public policy."

Other States in U.S.A.:
In no other State in U.S.A. is euthanasia or physician assisted death legal. Michigan banned euthanasia and assisted suicide in 1993, after Dr. Kevorkian (who became known as `doctor death') began encouraging and assisting in suicides. He was convicted in 1999 for an assisted suicide displayed on television, his medical licence cancelled, and he spent 8 years in jail.

In 1999 the State of Texas enacted the Texas Futile Care Law which entitles Texas hospitals and doctors, in some situations, to withdraw life support measures, such as mechanical respiration, from terminally ill patient when such treatment is considered futile and inappropriate. However, Texas has not legalized euthanasia or physician assisted death. In California, though 75 of people support physician assisted death, the issue is highly controversial in the State legislature.

Forty States in USA have enacted laws which explicitly make it a crime to provide another with the means of taking his or her life. In 1977 California legalized living wills, and other States soon followed suit. A living will (also known as advance directive or advance decision) is an instruction given by an individual while conscious specifying what action should be taken in the event he/she is unable to make a decision due to illness or incapacity, and appoints a person to take such decisions on his/her behalf. It may include a directive to withdraw life support on certain eventualities.

In Canada, physician assisted suicide is illegal vide Section 241(b) of the Criminal Code of Canada.

The leading decision of the Canadian Supreme Court in this connection is Sue Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General), (1993) 3 SCR 519. Rodriguez, a woman of 43, was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), and requested the Canadian Supreme Court to allow someone to aid her in ending her life. Her condition was deteriorating rapidly, and the doctors told her that she would soon lose the ability to swallow, speak, walk, and move her body without assistance. Thereafter she would lose her capacity to breathe without a respirator, to eat without a gastrotomy, and would eventually be confined to bed. Her life expectancy was 2 to 14 months.

The Canadian Supreme Court was deeply divided. By a 5 to 4 majority her plea was rejected. Justice Sopinka, speaking for the majority (which included Justices La Forest, Gonthier, Iacobucci and Major) observed:

"Sanctity of life has been understood historically as excluding freedom of choice in the self infliction of death, and certainly in the involvement of others in carrying out that choice. At the very least, no new consensus has emerged in society opposing the right of the State to regulate the involvement of others in exercising power over individuals ending their lives." The minority, consisting of Chief Justice Lamer and Justices L'Heureux-Dube, Cory and McLachlin, dissented.

Passive Euthanasia

Passive euthanasia is usually defined as withdrawing medical treatment with a deliberate intention of causing the patient's death. For example, if a patient requires kidney dialysis to survive, not giving dialysis although the machine is available, is passive euthanasia. Similarly, if a patient is in coma or on a heart lung machine, withdrawing of the machine will ordinarily result in passive euthanasia. Similarly not giving life saving medicines like antibiotics in certain situations may result in passive euthanasia. Denying food to a person in coma or PVS may also amount to passive euthanasia.

As already stated above, euthanasia can be both voluntary or non voluntary. In voluntary passive euthanasia a person who is capable of deciding for himself decides that he would prefer to die (which may be for various reasons e.g., that he is in great pain or that the money being spent on his treatment should instead be given to his family who are in greater need, etc.), and for this purpose he consciously and of his own free will refuses to take life saving medicines. In India, if a person consciously and voluntarily refuses to take life saving medical treatment it is not a crime. Whether not taking food consciously and voluntarily with the aim of ending one's life is a crime under section 309 IPC (attempt to commit suicide) is a question which need not be decided in this case.

Non voluntary passive euthanasia implies that the person is not in a position to decide for himself e.g., if he is in coma or PVS. The present is a case(Aruna Shanbag v. Union of India) where we have to consider non voluntary passive euthanasia i.e. whether to allow a person to die who is not in a position to give his/her consent.

There is a plethora of case law on the subject of the Courts all over the world relating to both active and passive euthanasia. It is not necessary to refer in detail to all the decisions of the Courts in the world on the subject of euthanasia or physically assisted dead (p.a.d.) but we think it appropriate to refer in detail to certain landmark decisions, which have laid down the law on the subject.

The Airedale Case:

(Airedale NHS Trust v. Bland (1993) All E.R. 82) (H.L.)
In the Airedale case decided by the House of Lords in the U.K., the facts were that one Anthony Bland aged about 17 went to the Hillsborough Ground on 15th April 1989 to support the Liverpool Football Club. In the course of the disaster which occurred on that day, his lungs were crushed and punctured and the supply to his brain was interrupted.

As a result, he suffered catastrophic and irreversible damage to the higher centres of the brain. For three years, he was in a condition known as `persistent vegetative state (PVS). This state arises from the destruction of the cerebral cortex on account of prolonged deprivation of oxygen, and the cerebral cortex of Anthony had resolved into a watery mass. The cortex is that part of the brain which is the seat of cognitive function and sensory capacity. Anthony Bland could not see, hear or feel anything.

He could not communicate in any way. His consciousness, which is an essential feature of an individual personality, had departed forever. However, his brain-stem, which controls the reflective functions of the body, in particular the heart beat, breathing and digestion, continued to operate. He was in persistent vegetative state (PVS) which is a recognized medical condition quite distinct from other conditions sometimes known as "irreversible coma", "the Guillain-Barre syndrome", "the locked-in syndrome" and "brain death".

The distinguishing characteristic of PVS is that the brain stem remains alive and functioning while the cortex has lost its function and activity. Thus the PVS patient continues to breathe unaided and his digestion continues to function. But although his eyes are open, he cannot see. He cannot hear. Although capable of reflex movement, particularly in response to painful stimuli, the patient is incapable of voluntary movement and can feel no pain. He cannot taste or smell. He cannot speak or communicate in any way. He has no cognitive function and thus can feel no emotion, whether pleasure or distress. The absence of cerebral function is not a matter of surmise; it can be scientifically demonstrated. The space which the brain should occupy is full of watery fluid.

In order to maintain Mr. Bland in his condition, feeding and hydration were achieved by artificial means of a nasogastric tube while the excretory functions were regulated by a catheter and enemas. According to eminent medical opinion, there was no prospect whatsoever that he would ever make a recovery from his condition, but there was every likelihood that he would maintain this state of existence for many years to come provided the artificial means of medical care was continued.

In this state of affairs the medical men in charge of Anthony Bland case took the view, which was supported by his parents that no useful purpose would be served by continuing medical care, and that artificial feeding and other measures aimed at prolonging his existence should be stopped. Since however, there was a doubt as to whether this course might constitute a criminal offence, the hospital authorities sought a declaration from the British High Court to resolve these doubts.

The declaration was granted by the Family Division of the High Court on 19.11.1992 and that judgment was affirmed by the Court of Appeal on 9.12.1992. A further appeal was made to the House of Lords which then decided the case.

The broad issued raised before the House of Lords in the Airedale case (supra) was "In what circumstances, if ever, can those having a duty to feed an invalid lawfully stop doing so?" In fact this is precisely the question raised in the present case of Aruna Shanbaug before us. In Airedale's case (supra), Lord Keith of Kinkel, noted that it was unlawful to administer treatment to an adult who is conscious and of sound mind, without his consent. Such a person is completely at liberty to decline to undergo treatment, even if the result of his doing so will be that he will die. This extends to the situation where the person in anticipation of his entering into a condition such as PVS, gives clear instructions that in such an event he is not to be given medical care, including artificial feeding, designed to keep him alive.

It was held that if a person, due to accident or some other cause becomes unconscious and is thus not able to give or withhold consent to medical treatment, in that situation it is lawful for medical men to apply such treatment as in their informed opinion is in the best interests of the unconscious patient. That is what happened in the case of Anthony Bland when he was first dealt with by the emergency services and later taken to hospital.

When the incident happened the first imperative was to prevent Anthony from dying, as he would certainly have done in the absence of the steps that were taken. For a time, no doubt, there was some hope that he might recover sufficiently for him to be able to live a life that had some
meaning. Some patients who have suffered damage to the cerebral cortex have, indeed, made a complete recovery. It all depends on the degree of damage. But sound medical opinion takes the view that if a P.V.S. patient shows no signs of recovery after six months, or at most a year, then there is no prospect whatever of any recovery.

There are techniques available which make it possible to ascertain the state of the cerebral cortex, and in Anthony Bland's case these indicated that, it had degenerated into a mass of watery fluid. In this situation the question before the House of Lords was whether the doctors could withdraw medical treatment or feeding Anthony Bland thus allowing him to die.

It was held by Lord Keith that a medical practitioner is under no duty to continue to treat such a patient where a large body of informed and responsible medical opinion is to the effect that no benefit at all would be conferred by continuance of the treatment. Existence in a vegetative state with no prospect of recovery is by that opinion regarded as not being of benefit to the patient.

Given that existence in the persistent vegetative state is of no benefit to the patient, the House of Lords then considered whether the principle of the sanctity of life which is the concern of the State (and the Judiciary is one of the arms of the State) required the Court to hold that medical treatment to Bland could not be discontinued.

Lord Keith observed that the principle of sanctity of life is not an absolute one. For instance, it does not compel the medical practitioner on pain of criminal sanction to treat a patient, who will die, if he does not, according to the express wish of the patient. It does not authorize forcible feeding of prisoners on hunger strike. It does not compel the temporary keeping alive of patients who are terminally ill where to do so would merely prolong their suffering. On the other hand, it forbids the taking of active measures to cut short the life of a terminally-ill patient (unless there is legislation which permits it).

Lord Keith observed that although the decision whether or not the continued treatment and cure of a PVS patient confers any benefit on him is essentially one for the medical practitioners in charge of his case to decide, as a matter of routine the hospital/medical practitioner should apply to the Family Division of the High Court for endorsing or reversing the said decision. This is in the interest of the protection of the patient, protection of the doctors, and for the reassurance of the patient's family and the public.

In Airdale's case (Supra) another Judge on the Bench, Lord Goff of Chievely observed:
"The central issue in the present case has been aptly stated by the Master of the Rolls to be whether artificial feeding and antibiotic drugs may lawfully be withheld from an insensate patient with no hope of recovery when it is known that if that is done the patient will shortly thereafter die.

The Court of Appeal, like the President, answered this question generally in the affirmative, and (in the declarations made or approved by them) specifically also in the affirmative in relation to Anthony Bland. I find myself to be in agreement with the conclusions so reached by all the judges below, substantially for the reasons given by them. But the matter is of such importance that I propose to express my reasons in my own words.

I start with the simple fact that, in law, Anthony is still alive. It is true that his condition is such that it can be described as a living death; but he is nevertheless still alive. This is because, as a result of developments in modern medical technology, doctors no longer associate death exclusively with breathing and heart beat, and it has come to be accepted that death occurs when the brain, and in particular the brain stem, has been destroyed (see Professor Ian Kennedy's Paper entitled "Switching off Life Support Machines:

The Legal Implications" reprinted in Treat Me Right, Essays in Medical Law and Ethics, (1988)), especially at pp. 351-2, and the material there cited). There has been no dispute on this point in the present case, and it is unnecessary for me to consider it further. The evidence is that Anthony's brain stem is still alive and functioning and it follows that, in the present state of medical science, he is still alive and should be so regarded as a matter of law.

It is on this basis that I turn to the applicable principles of law. Here, the fundamental principle is the principle of the sanctity of human life - a principle long recognized not only in our own society but also in most, if not all, civilized societies throughout the modern world, as is indeed evidenced by its recognition both in article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights, and in article 6 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.

But this principle, fundamental though it is, is not absolute. Indeed there are circumstances in which it is lawful to take another man's life, for example by a lawful act of self-defence, or (in the days when capital punishment was acceptable in our society) by lawful execution. We are not however concerned with cases such as these. We are concerned with circumstances in which it may be lawful to withhold from a patient medical treatment or care by means of which his life may be prolonged.

But here too there is no absolute rule that the patient's life must be prolonged by such treatment or care, if available, regardless of the circumstances. First, it is established that the principle of self- determination requires that respect must be given to the wishes of the patient, so that if an adult patient of sound mind refuses, however unreasonably, to consent to treatment or care by which his life would or might be prolonged, the doctors responsible for his care must give effect to his wishes, even though they do not consider it to be in his best interests to do so (see Schloendorff v . Society of New York Hospital 105 N.E. 92, 93, per Cardozo J. (1914); S. v . McC. (Orse S.) and M (D.S. Intervene); W v . W [1972] A.C. 24, 43, per Lord Reid; and Sidaway v . Board of Governors of the Bethlem Royal Hospital and the Maudsley Hospital [1985] AC 871, 882, per Lord Scarman). To this extent, the principle of the sanctity of human life must yield to the principle of self- determination (see Court of Appeal Transcript in the present case, at p. 38F per Hoffmann L.J.), and, for present purposes perhaps more important, the doctor's duty to act in the best interests of his patient must likewise be qualified.

On this basis, it has been held that a patient of sound mind may, if properly informed, require that life support should be discontinued: see Nancy B. v. Hotel Dieu de Quebec (1992) 86 D.L.R. (4th) 385. Moreover the same principle applies where the patient's refusal to give his consent has been expressed at an earlier date, before he became unconscious or otherwise incapable of communicating it; though in such circumstances especial care may be necessary to ensure that the prior refusal of consent is still properly to be regarded as applicable in the circumstances which have subsequently occurred (see, e.g. In re T. (Adult: Refusal of treatment) [1992] 3 W.L.R. 782). I wish to add that, in cases of this kind, there is no question of the patient having committed suicide, nor therefore of the doctor having aided or abetted him in doing so. It is simply that the patient has, as he is entitled to do, declined to consent to treatment which might or would have the effect of prolonging his life.

And the doctor has, in accordance with his duty, complied with his patient's wishes. But in many cases not only may the patient be in no condition to be able to say whether or not he consents to the relevant treatment or care, but also he may have given no prior indication of his wishes with regard to it. In the case of a child who is a ward of court, the court itself will decide whether medical treatment should be provided in the child's best interests, taking into account medical opinion. But the court cannot give its consent on behalf of an adult patient who is incapable of himself deciding whether or not to consent to treatment. I am of the opinion that there is nevertheless no absolute obligation upon the doctor who has the patient in his care to prolong his life, regardless of the circumstances. Indeed, it would be most startling, and could lead to the most adverse and cruel effects upon the patient, if any such absolute rules were held to exist.

It is scarcely consistent with the primacy given to the principle of self-determination in those cases in which the patient of sound mind has declined to give his consent, that the law should provide no means of enabling treatment to be withheld in appropriate circumstances where the patient is in no condition to indicate, if that was his wish, that he did not consent to it. The point was put forcibly in the judgment of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in Superintendent of Belchertown State School v. Saikewicz (1977) 370 N.E. 2d. 417, 428, as follows: "To presume that the incompetent person must always be subjected to what many rational and intelligent persons may decline is to downgrade the status of the incompetent person by placing a lesser value on his intrinsic human worth and vitality."

I must however stress, at this point, that the law draws a crucial distinction between cases in which a doctor decides not to provide, or to continue to provide, for his patient treatment or care which could or might prolong his life, and those in which he decides, for example by administering a lethal drug, actively to bring his patient's life to an end. As I have already indicated, the former may be lawful, either because the doctor is giving effect to his patient's wishes by withholding the treatment or care, or even in certain circumstances in which (on principles which I shall describe) the patient is incapacitated from stating whether or not he gives his consent.

But it is not lawful for a doctor to administer a drug to his patient to bring about his death, even though that course is prompted by a humanitarian desire to end his suffering, however great that suffering may be: see Reg. v. Cox (Unreported), Ognall J., Winchester Crown Court, 18 September 1992. So to act is to cross the Rubicon which runs between on the one hand the care of the living patient and on the other hand euthanasia - actively causing his death to avoid or to end his suffering. Euthanasia is not lawful at common law.

It is of course well known that there are many responsible members of our society who believe that euthanasia should be made lawful; but that result could, I believe, only be achieved by legislation which expresses the democratic will that so fundamental a change should be made in our law, and can, if enacted, ensure that such legalised killing can only be carried out subject to appropriate supervision and control. It is true that the drawing of this distinction may lead to a charge of hypocrisy.

Because it can be asked why, if the doctor, by discontinuing treatment, is entitled in consequence to let his patient die, it should not be lawful to put him out of his misery straight away, in a more humane manner, by a lethal injection, rather than let him linger on in pain until he dies. But the law does not feel able to authorize euthanasia, even in circumstances such as these; for once euthanasia is recognized as lawful in these circumstances, it is difficult to see any logical basis for excluding it in others. At the heart of this distinction lies a theoretical question.

Why is it that the doctor who gives his patient a lethal injection which kills him commits an unlawful act and indeed is guilty of murder, whereas a doctor who, by discontinuing life support, allows his patient to die, may not act unlawfully - and will not do so, if he commits no breach of duty to his patient? Professor Glanville Williams has suggested (see his Textbook of Criminal Law, 2nd ed., p. 282) that the reason is that what the doctor does when he switches off a life support machine 'is in substance not an act but an omission to struggle, and that 'the omission is not a breach of duty by the doctor because he is not obliged to continue in a hopeless case'.

I agree that the doctor's conduct in discontinuing life support can properly be categorized as an omission. It is true that it may be difficult to describe what the doctor actually does as an omission, for example where he takes some positive step to bring the life support to an end. But discontinuation of life support is, for present purposes, no different from not initiating life support in the first place. In each case, the doctor is simply allowing his patient to die in the sense that he is desisting from taking a step which might, in certain circumstances, prevent his patient from dying as a result of his pre-existing condition; and as a matter of general principle an omission such as this will not be unlawful unless it constitutes a breach of duty to the patient.

I also agree that the doctor's conduct is to be differentiated from that of, for example, an interloper who maliciously switches off a life support machine because, although the interloper may perform exactly the same act as the doctor who discontinues life support, his doing so constitutes interference with the life-prolonging treatment then being administered by the doctor.

Accordingly, whereas the doctor, in discontinuing life support, is simply allowing his patient to die of his pre- existing condition, the interloper is actively intervening to stop the doctor from prolonging the patient's life, and such conduct cannot possibly be categorised as an omission.

The distinction appears, therefore, to be useful in the present context in that it can be invoked to explain how discontinuance of life support can be differentiated from ending a patient's life by a lethal injection. But in the end the reason for that difference is that, whereas the law considers that discontinuance of life support may be consistent with the doctor's duty to care for his patient, it does not, for reasons of policy, consider that it forms any part of his duty to give his patient a lethal injection to put him out of his agony.

I return to the patient who, because for example he is of unsound mind or has been rendered unconscious by accident or by illness, is incapable of stating whether or not he consents to treatment or care. In such circumstances, it is now established that a doctor may lawfully treat such a patient if he acts in his best interests, and indeed that, if the patient is already in his care, he is under a duty so to treat him: see In re F [1990] 2 AC 1, in which the legal principles governing treatment in such circumstances were stated by this House.

For my part I can see no reason why, as a matter of principle, a decision by a doctor whether or not to initiate, or to continue to provide, treatment or care which could or might have the effect of prolonging such a patient's life, should not be governed by the same fundamental principle. Of course, in the great majority of cases, the best interests of the patient are likely to require that treatment of this kind, if available, should be given to a patient.

But this may not always be so. To take a simple example given by Thomas J. in Re J.H.L. (Unreported) (High Court of New Zealand) 13 August 1992, at p. 35), to whose judgment in that case I wish to pay tribute, it cannot be right that a doctor, who has under his care a patient suffering painfully from terminal cancer, should be under an absolute obligation to perform upon him major surgery to abate another condition which, if unabated, would or might shorten his life still further.

The doctor who is caring for such a patient cannot, in my opinion, be under an absolute obligation to prolong his life by any means available to him, regardless of the quality of the patient's life. Common humanity requires otherwise, as do medical ethics and good medical practice accepted in this country and overseas. As I see it, the doctor's decision whether or not to take any such step must (subject to his patient's ability to give or withhold his consent) be made in the best interests of the patient.

It is this principle too which, in my opinion, underlies the established rule that a doctor may, when caring for a patient who is, for example, dying of cancer, lawfully administer painkilling drugs despite the fact that he knows that an incidental effect of that application will be to abbreviate the patient's life. Such a decision may properly be made as part of the care of the living patient, in his best interests; and, on this basis, the treatment will be lawful. Moreover, where the doctor's treatment of his patient is lawful, the patient's death will be regarded in law as exclusively caused by the injury or disease to which his condition is attributable.

It is of course the development of modern medical technology, and in particular the development of life support systems, which has rendered cases such as the present so much more relevant than in the past. Even so, where (for example) a patient is brought into hospital in such a condition that, without the benefit of a life support system, he will not continue to live, the decision has to be made whether or not to give him that benefit, if available. That decision can only be made in the best interests of the patient.

No doubt, his best interests will ordinarily require that he should be placed on a life support system as soon as necessary, if only to make an accurate assessment of his condition and a prognosis for the future. But if he neither recovers sufficiently to be taken off it nor dies, the question will ultimately arise whether he should be kept on it indefinitely.

As I see it, that question (assuming the continued availability of the system) can only be answered by reference to the best interests of the patient himself, having regard to established medical practice. Indeed, if the justification for treating a patient who lacks the capacity to consent lies in the fact that the treatment is provided in his best interests, it must follow that the treatment may, and indeed ultimately should, be discontinued where it is no longer in his best interests to provide it.

The question which lies at the heart of the present case is, as I see it, whether on that principle the doctors responsible for the treatment and care of Anthony Bland can justifiably discontinue the process of artificial feeding upon which the prolongation of his life depends.

It is crucial for the understanding of this question that the question itself should be correctly formulated. The question is not whether the doctor should take a course which will kill his patient, or even take a course which has the effect of accelerating his death. The question is whether the doctor should or should not continue to provide his patient with medical treatment or care which, if continued, will prolong his patient's life.

The question is sometimes put in striking or emotional terms, which can be misleading. For example, in the case of a life support system, it is sometimes asked: Should a doctor be entitled to switch it off, or to pull the plug? And then it is asked: Can it be in the best interests of the patient that a doctor should be able to switch the life support system off, when this will inevitably result in the patient's death?

Such an approach has rightly been criticised as misleading, for example by Professor Ian Kennedy (in his paper in Treat Me Right, Essays in Medical Law and Ethics (1988), and by Thomas J. in Re J.H.L. at pp. 21-22. This is because the question is not whether it is in the best interests of the patient that he should die. The question is whether it is in the best interests of the patient that his life should be prolonged by the continuance of this form of medical treatment or care.

The correct formulation of the question is of particular importance in a case such as the present, where the patient is totally unconscious and where there is no hope whatsoever of any amelioration of his condition. In circumstances such as these, it may be difficult to say that it is in his best interests that the treatment should be ended. But if the question is asked, as in my opinion it should be, whether it is in his best interests that treatment which has the effect of artificially prolonging his life should be continued, that question can sensibly be answered to the effect that it is not in his best interests to do so

Thus all the Judges of the House of Lords in the Airedale case (supra) were agreed that Anthony Bland should be allowed to die.

Airedale (1993) decided by the House of Lords has been followed in a number of cases in U.K., and the law is now fairly well settled that in the case of incompetent patients, if the doctors act on the basis of informed medical opinion, and withdraw the artificial life support system if it is in the patient's best interest, the said act cannot be regarded as a crime.

The question, however, remains as to who is to decide what the patient's is best interest where he is in a persistent vegetative state (PVS)? Most decisions have held that the decision of the parents, spouse, or other close relative, should carry weight if it is an informed one, but it is not decisive (several of these decisions have been referred to in Chapter IV of the 196th Report of the Law Commission of India on Medical Treatment to Terminally ill Patients).

It is ultimately for the Court to decide, as parens patriae, as to what is is in the best interest of the patient, though the wishes of close relatives and next friend, and opinion of medical practitioners should be given due weight in coming to its decision. As stated by Balcombe, J. in In Re J ( A Minor Wardship : Medical Treatment) 1990(3) All E.R. 930, the Court as representative of the Sovereign as parens patriae will adopt the same standard which a reasonable and responsible parent would do.

The parens patriae (father of the country) jurisdiction was the jurisdiction of the Crown, which, as stated in Airedale, could be traced to the 13th Century. This principle laid down that as the Sovereign it was the duty of the King to protect the person and property of those who were unable to protect themselves. The Court, as a wing of the State, has inherited the parens patriae jurisdiction which formerly belonged to the King. U.S. decisions

The two most significant cases of the U.S. Supreme Court that addressed the issue whether there was a federal constitutional right to assisted suicide arose from challenges to State laws banning physician assisted suicide brought by terminally ill patients and their physicians. These were Washington vs. Glucksberg 521 U.S. 702 (1997) and Vacco vs. Quill 521 U.S. 793 (1997).

In Glucksberg's case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the asserted right to assistance in committing suicide is not a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court observed :

"The decision to commit suicide with the assistance of another may be just as personal and profound as the decision to refuse unwanted medical treatment, but it has never enjoyed similar legal protection. Indeed the two acts are widely and reasonably regarded as quite distinct."

The Court went on to conclude that the Washington statute being challenged was rationally related to five legitimate government interest : protection of life, prevention of suicide, protection of ethical integrity of the medical profession, protection of vulnerable groups, and protection against the "slippery slope" towards euthanasia. The Court then noted that perhaps the individual States were more suited to resolving or at least addressing the myriad concerns raised by both proponents and opponents of physician assisted suicide. The Court observed :

"Throughout the Nation, Americans are engaged in an earnest and profound debate about the morality, legality and practicality of physician assisted suicide. Our holding permits this debate to continue, as it should in a democratic society."

In Vacco's case (supra) the U.S. Supreme Court again recognized the distinction between refusing life saving medical treatment and giving lethal medication. The Court disagreed with the view of the Second Circuit Federal Court that ending or refusing lifesaving medical treatment is nothing more nor less than assisted suicide. The Court held that "the distinction between letting a patient die and making that patient die is important, logical, rational, and well established". The Court held that the State of New York could validly ban the latter.

In Cruzan v. Director, MDH, 497 U.S. 261(1990) decided by the U.S. Supreme Court the majority opinion was delivered by the Chief Justice Rehnquist.

In that case, the petitioner Nancy Cruzan sustained injuries in an automobile accident and lay in a Missouri State hospital in what has been referred to as a persistent vegetative state (PVS), a condition in which a person exhibits motor reflexes but evinces no indication of significant cognitive function. The state of Missouri was bearing the cost of her care. Her parents and co-guardians applied to the Court for permission to withdraw her artificial feeding and hydration equipment and allow her to die.

While the trial Court granted the prayer, the State Supreme Court of Missouri reversed, holding that under a statute in the State of Missouri it was necessary to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the incompetent person had wanted, while competent, withdrawal of life support treatment in such an eventuality.

The only evidence led on that point was the alleged statement of Nancy Cruzan to a housemate about a year before the accident that she did not want life as a `vegetable'. The State Supreme Court was of the view that this did not amount to saying that medical treatment or nutrition or hydration should be withdrawn.

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivering the opinion of the Court (in which Justices White, O'Connor, Scalia, and Kennedy, joined) in his judgment first noted the facts:
"On the night of January 11, 1983, Nancy Cruzan lost control of her car as she traveled down Elm Road in Jasper County, Missouri. The vehicle overturned, and Cruzan was discovered lying face down in a ditch without detectable respiratory or cardiac function. Paramedics were able to restore her breathing and heartbeat at the accident site, and she was transported to a hospital in an unconscious state. An attending neurosurgeon diagnosed her as having sustained probable cerebral contusions compounded by significant anoxia (lack of oxygen).

The Missouri trial court in this case found that permanent brain damage generally results after 6 minutes in an anoxic state; it was estimated that Cruzan was deprived of oxygen from 12 to 14 minutes. She remained in a coma for approximately three weeks, and then progressed to an unconscious state in which she was able to orally ingest some nutrition. In order to ease feeding and further the recovery, surgeons implanted a gastrostomy feeding and hydration tube in Cruzan with the consent of her then husband.

Subsequent rehabilitative efforts proved unavailing. She now lies in a Missouri state hospital in what is commonly referred to as a persistent vegetative state: generally, a condition in which a person exhibits motor reflexes but evinces no indications of significant cognitive function. The State of Missouri is bearing the cost of her care. [497 U.S. 261, 267] After it had become apparent that Nancy Cruzan had virtually no chance of regaining her mental faculties, her parents asked hospital employees to terminate the artificial nutrition and hydration procedures. All agree that such a [497 U.S. 261, 268] removal would cause her death. The employees refused to honor the request without court approval. The parents then sought and received authorization from the state trial court for termination."

While the trial Court allowed the petition the State Supreme Court of Missouri reversed. The US Supreme Court by majority affirmed the verdict of the State Supreme CourtChief Justice Rehnquist noted that in law even touching of one person by another without consent and without legal justification was a battery, and hence illegal. The notion of bodily integrity has been embodied in the requirement that informed consent is generally required for medical treatment.

As observed by Justice Cardozo, while on the Court of Appeals of New York "Every human being of adult years and sound mind has a right to determine what shall be done with his own body, and a surgeon who performs an operation without his patient's consent commits an assault, for which he is liable in damages." vide Schloendorff vs. Society of New York Hospital, 211 N.Y. 125, 129-30, 105 N.E. 92, 93 (1914). Thus the informed consent doctrine has become firmly entrenched in American Tort Law. The logical corollary of the doctrine of informed consent is that the patient generally possesses the right not to consent, that is to refuse treatment.

The question, however, arises in cases where the patient is unable to decide whether the treatment should continue or not e.g. if he is in coma or PVS. Who is to give consent to terminate the treatment in such a case? The learned Chief Justice referred to a large number of decisions of Courts in U.S.A. in this connection, often taking diverse approaches.

In re Quinlan 70 N.J.10, 355 A. 2d 647, Karen Quinlan suffered severe brain damage as a result of anoxia, and entered into PVS. Her father sought judicial approval to disconnect her respirator. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted the prayer, holding that Karen had a right of privacy grounded in the U.S. Constitution to terminate treatment. The Court concluded that the way Karen's right to privacy could be exercised would be to allow her guardian and family to decide whether she would exercise it in the circumstances.

In re Conroy 98 NJ 321, 486 A.2d 1209 (1985), however, the New Jersey Supreme Court, in a case of an 84 year old incompetent nursing home resident who had suffered irreversible mental and physical ailments, contrary to its decision in Quinlan's case, decided to base its decision on the common law right to self determination and informed consent. This right can be exercised by a surrogate decision maker when there was a clear evidence that the incompetent person would have exercised it.

Where such evidence was lacking the Court held that an individual's right could still be invoked in certain circumstances under objective `best interest' standards. Where no trustworthy evidence existed that the individual would have wanted to terminate treatment and a person's suffering would make the administration of life sustaining treatment inhumane, a pure objective standard could be used to terminate the treatment. If none of these conditions obtained, it was best to err in favour of preserving life.

What is important to note in Cruzan's case (supra) is that there was a statute of the State of Missouri, unlike in Airedale's case (where there was none), which required clear and convincing evidence that while the patient was competent she had desired that if she becomes incompetent and in a PVS her life support should be withdrawn.

In Cruzan's case (supra) the learned Chief Justice observed:
"Not all incompetent patients will have loved ones available to serve as surrogate decision makers. And even where family members are present, there will be, of course, some unfortunate situations in which family members will not act to protect a patient. A State is entitled to guard against potential abuses in such situations."

The learned Chief Justice further observed:
"An erroneous decision not to terminate results in maintenance of the status quo; the possibility of subsequent developments such as advancements in medical science, the discovery of new evidence regarding the patient's intent, changes in the law, or simply the unexpected death of the patient despite the administration of life-sustaining treatment, at least create the potential that a wrong decision will eventually be corrected or its impact mitigated. An erroneous decision to withdraw life-sustaining treatment, however, is not susceptible of correction."

No doubt Mr. Justice Brennan (with whom Justices Marshall and Blackmun joined) wrote a powerful dissenting opinion, but it is not necessary for us to go into the question whether the view of the learned Chief Justice or that of Justice Brennan, is correct.

It may be clarified that foreign decisions have only persuasive value in our country, and are not binding authorities on our Courts. Hence we can even prefer to follow the minority view, rather than the majority view, of a foreign decision, or follow an overruled foreign decision.

Cruzan's case (supra) can be distinguished on the simple ground that there was a statute in the State of Missouri, whereas there was none in the Airedale's case nor in the present case before us. We are, therefore, of the opinion that the Airedale's case (supra) is more apposite as a precedent for us. No doubt foreign decisions are not binding on us, but they certainly have persuasive value.

Law In India

In India abetment of suicide (Section 306 Indian Penal Code) and attempt to suicide (Section 309 of Indian Penal Code) are both criminal offences. This is in contrast to many countries such as USA where attempt to suicide is not a crime.

The Constitution Bench of the Indian Supreme Court in Gian Kaur vs. State of Punjab, 1996(2) SCC 648 held that both euthanasia and assisted suicide are not lawful in India. That decision overruled the earlier two Judge Bench decision of the Supreme Court in P. Rathinam vs. Union of India, 1994(3) SCC 394. The Court held that the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution does not include the right to die (vide para 33). In Gian Kaur's case (supra) the Supreme Court approved of the decision of the House of Lords in Airedale's case (supra), and observed that euthanasia could be made lawful only by legislation.

Sections 306 and 309 IPC read as under:
"306. Abetment of suicide - If any person commits suicide, whoever abets the commission of such suicide, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.

309. Attempt to commit suicide - Whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine, or with both."

The Supreme Court of India was of the opinion that although Section 309 Indian Penal Code (attempt to commit suicide) has been held to be constitutionally valid in Gian Kaur's case (supra), the time has come when it should be deleted by Parliament as it has become anachronistic. A person attempts suicide in a depression, and hence he needs help, rather than punishment. The Bench, therefore recommend to Parliament to consider the feasibility of deleting Section 309 from the Indian Penal Code.

It may be noted that in Gian Kaur's case (supra) although the Supreme Court has quoted with approval the view of the House of Lords in Airedale's case (supra), it has not clarified who can decide whether life support should be discontinued in the case of an incompetent person e.g. a person in coma or PVS. This vexed question has been arising often in India because there are a large number of cases where persons go into coma (due to an accident or some other reason) or for some other reason are unable to give consent, and then the question arises as to who should give consent for withdrawal of life support.

This is an extremely important question in India because of the unfortunate low level of ethical standards to which our society has descended, its raw and widespread commercialization, and the rampant corruption, and hence, the Court has to be very cautious that unscrupulous persons who wish to inherit the property of someone may not get him eliminated by some crooked method.

Also, since medical science is advancing fast, doctors must not declare a patient to be a hopeless case unless there appears to be no reasonable possibility of any improvement by some newly discovered medical method in the near future. In this connection we may refer to a recent news item which we have come across on the internet of an Arkansas man Terry Wallis, who was 19 years of age and newly married with a baby daughter when in 1984 his truck plunged through a guard rail, falling 25 feet.

He went into coma in the crash in 1984, but after 24 years he has regained consciousness. This was perhaps because his brain spontaneously rewired itself by growing tiny new nerve connections to replace the ones sheared apart in the car crash. Probably the nerve fibers from Terry Wallis' cells were severed but the cells themselves remained intact, unlike Terri Schiavo, whose brain cells had died (see Terri Schiavo's case on Google).

However, we make it clear that it is experts like medical practitioners who can decide whether there is any reasonable possibility of a new medical discovery which could enable such a patient to revive in the near future.

When Can A Person Is Said To Be Dead

It is alleged in the writ petition filed by Ms. Pinky Virani (claiming to be the next friend of Aruna Shanbaug) that in fact Aruna Shanbaug is already dead and hence by not feeding her body any more we shall not be killing her. The question hence arises as to when a person can be said to be dead?

A person's most important organ is his/her brain. This organ cannot be replaced. Other body parts can be replaced e.g. if a person's hand or leg is amputed, he can get an artificial limb. Similarly, we can transplant a kidney, a heart or a liver when the original one has failed. However, we cannot transplant a brain. If someone else's brain is transplanted into one's body, then in fact, it will be that other person living in one's body. The entire mind, including one's personality, cognition, memory, capacity of receiving signals from the five senses and capacity of giving commands to the other parts of the body, etc. are the functions of the brain. Hence one is one's brain. It follows that one is dead when one's brain is dead.

As is well-known, the brain cells normally do not multiply after the early years of childhood (except in the region called hippocampus), unlike other cells like skin cells, which are regularly dying and being replaced by new cells produced by multiplying of the old cells. This is probably because brain cells are too highly specialized to multiply. Hence if the brain cells die, they usually cannot be replaced (though sometimes one part of the brain can take over the function of another part in certain situations where the other part has been irreversibly damaged).

Brain cells require regular supply of oxygen which comes through the red cells in the blood. If oxygen supply is cut off for more than six minutes, the brain cells die and this condition is known as anoxia. Hence, if the brain is dead a person is said to be dead.

Withdrawal Of Life Support Of A Patient In Permanent Vegetative State (Pvs)

There is no statutory provision in our country as to the legal procedure for withdrawing life support to a person in PVS or who is otherwise incompetent to take a decision in this connection. We agree with Mr. Andhyarujina that passive euthanasia should be permitted in our country in certain situations, and we disagree with the learned Attorney General that it should never be permitted. Hence, following the technique used in Vishakha's case (supra), we are laying down the law in this connection which will continue to be the law until Parliament makes a law on the subject.
  1. A decision has to be taken to discontinue life support either by the parents or the spouse or other close relatives, or in the absence of any of them, such a decision can be taken even by a person or a body of persons acting as a next friend. It can also be taken by the doctors attending the patient. However, the decision should be taken bona fide in the best interest of the patient.

    In the present case, we have already noted that Aruna Shanbaug's parents are dead and other close relatives are not interested in her ever since she had the unfortunate assault on her. As already noted above, it is the KEM hospital staff, who have been amazingly caring for her day and night for so many long years, who really are her next friends, and not Ms. Pinky Virani who has only visited her on few occasions and written a book on her. Hence it is for the KEM hospital staff to take that decision. The KEM hospital staff have clearly expressed their wish that Aruna Shanbaug should be allowed to live.

    Mr. Pallav Shisodia, learned senior counsel, appearing for the Dean, KEM Hospital, Mumbai, submitted that Ms. Pinky Virani has no locus standi in this case. In our opinion it is not necessary for us to go into this question since we are of the opinion that it is the KEM Hospital staff who is really the next friend of Aruna Shanbaug.

    We do not mean to decry or disparage what Ms. Pinky Virani has done. Rather, we wish to express our appreciation of the splendid social spirit she has shown. We have seen on the internet that she has been espousing many social causes, and we hold her in high esteem. All that we wish to say is that however much her interest in Aruna Shanbaug may be it cannot match the involvement of the KEM hospital staff who have been taking care of Aruna day and night for 38 years.

    However, assuming that the KEM hospital staff at some future time changes its mind, in the bench opined that in such a situation the KEM hospital would have to apply to the Bombay High Court for approval of the decision to withdraw life support.
  2. Hence, even if a decision is taken by the near relatives or doctors or next friend to withdraw life support, such a decision requires approval from the High Court concerned as laid down in Airedale's case (supra).

    The court observed that, this is even more necessary in our country as we cannot rule out the possibility of mischief being done by relatives or others for inheriting the property of the patient.

    In our opinion, the court remarked, if we leave it solely to the patient's relatives or to the doctors or next friend to decide whether to withdraw the life support of an incompetent person there is always a risk in our country that this may be misused by some unscrupulous persons who wish to inherit or otherwise grab the property of the patient.

    Considering the low ethical levels prevailing in our society today and the rampant commercialization and corruption, we cannot rule out the possibility that unscrupulous persons with the help of some unscrupulous doctors may fabricate material to show that it is a terminal case with no chance of recovery. There are doctors and doctors. While many doctors are upright, there are others who can do anything for money (see George Bernard Shaw's play `The Doctors Dilemma').

    The commercialization of our society has crossed all limits. Hence we have to guard against the potential of misuse (see Robin Cook's novel `Coma'). In our opinion, while giving great weight to the wishes of the parents, spouse, or other close relatives or next friend of the incompetent patient and also giving due weight to the opinion of the attending doctors, we cannot leave it entirely to their discretion whether to discontinue the life support or not.

    We agree with the decision of the Lord Keith in Airedale's case (supra) that the approval of the High Court should be taken in this connection. This is in the interest of the protection of the patient, protection of the doctors, relative and next friend, and for reassurance of the patient's family as well as the public. This is also in consonance with the doctrine of parens patriae which is a well known principle of law.

Doctrine Of Parens Patriae

The doctrine of Parens Patriae (father of the country) had originated in British law as early as the 13th century. It implies that the King is the father of the country and is under obligation to look after the interest of those who are unable to look after themselves. The idea behind Parens Patriae is that if a citizen is in need of someone who can act as a parent who can make decisions and take some other action, sometimes the State is best qualified to take on this role.

In the Constitution Bench decision of this Court in Charan Lal Sahu vs. Union of India (1990) 1 SCC 613 (vide paras 35 and 36), the doctrine has been explained in some details as follows :

"In the "Words and Phrases" Permanent Edition, Vol. 33 at page 99, it is stated that parens patriae is the inherent power and authority of a legislature to provide protection to the person and property of persons non sui juris, such as minor, insane, and incompetent persons, but the words parens patriae meaning thereby `the father of the country', were applied originally to the King and are used to designate the State referring to its sovereign power of guardianship over persons under disability.

Parens patriae jurisdiction, it has been explained, is the right of the sovereign and imposes a duty on the sovereign, in public interest, to protect persons under disability who have no rightful protector. The connotation of the term parens patriae differs from country to country, for instance, in England it is the King, in America it is the people, etc. The government is within its duty to protect and to control persons under disability".

The duty of the King in feudal times to act as parens patriae (father of the country) has been taken over in modern times by the State.

In Heller vs. DOE (509) US 312 Mr. Justice Kennedy speaking for the U.S. Supreme Court observed:

"the State has a legitimate interest under its parens patriae powers in providing care to its citizens who are unable to care for themselves".

In State of Kerala vs. N.M. Thomas, 1976(1) SCR 906 (at page 951) Mr. Justice Mathew observed:

"The Court also is `state' within the meaning of Article 12 (of the Constitution).".

In our opinion, in the case of an incompetent person who is unable to take a decision whether to withdraw life support or not, it is the Court alone, as parens patriae, which ultimately must take this decision, though, no doubt, the views of the near relatives, next friend and doctors must be given due weight." The Bench remarked.

Under Which Provision Of The Law Can The Court Grant Approval For Withdrawing Life Support To An Incompetent Person

The Supreme Court opined, it is the High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution which can grant approval for withdrawal of life support to such an incompetent person. Article 226(1) of the Constitution states:

"Notwithstanding anything in article 32, every High Court shall have power, throughout the territories in relation to which it exercises jurisdiction, to issue to any person or authority, including in appropriate cases, any Government, within those territories directions, orders or writs, including writs in the nature of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, quo warranto and certiorari, or any of them, for the enforcement of any of the rights conferred by Part III and for any other purpose".

A bare perusal of the above provisions shows that the High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution is not only entitled to issue writs, but is also entitled to issue directions or orders.

In Dwarka Nath vs. ITO AIR 1966 SC 81(vide paragraph 4) this Court observed:
"This article is couched in comprehensive phraseology and it ex facie confers a wide power on the High Courts to reach injustice wherever it is found. The Constitution designedly used a wide language in describing the nature of the power, the purpose for which and the person or authority against whom it can be exercised. It can issue writs in the nature of prerogative writs as understood in England; but the scope of those writs also is widened by the use of the expression "nature", for the said expression does not equate the writs that can be issued in India with those in England, but only draws an analogy from them.

That apart, High Courts can also issue directions, orders or writs other than the prerogative writs. It enables the High Courts to mould the reliefs to meet the peculiar and complicated requirements of this country. Any attempt to equate the scope of the power of the High Court under Art. 226 of the Constitution with that of the English Courts to issue prerogative writs is to introduce the unnecessary procedural restrictions grown over the years in a comparatively small country like England with a unitary form of Government to a vast country like India functioning under a federal structure."

136. The above decision has been followed by this Court in Shri Anadi Mukta Sadguru vs. V. R. Rudani AIR 1989 SC 1607 (vide para 18).

No doubt, the ordinary practice in our High Courts since the time of framing of the Constitution in 1950 is that petitions filed under Article 226 of the Constitution pray for a writ of the kind referred to in the provision. However, from the very language of the Article 226, and as explained by the above decisions, a petition can also be made to the High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution praying for an order or direction, and not for any writ. Hence, in our opinion, Article 226 gives abundant power to the High Court to pass suitable orders on the application filed by the near relatives or next friend or the doctors/hospital staff praying for permission to withdraw the life support to an incompetent person of the kind above mentioned.

Procedure To Be Adopted By The High Court When Such An Application Is Filed

When such an application is filed the Chief Justice of the High Court should forthwith constitute a Bench of at least two Judges who should decide to grant approval or not. Before doing so the Bench should seek the opinion of a committee of three reputed doctors to be nominated by the Bench after consulting such medical authorities/medical practitioners as it may deem fit.

Preferably one of the three doctors should be a neurologist, one should be a psychiatrist, and the third a physician. For this purpose a panel of doctors in every city may be prepared by the High Court in consultation with the State Government/Union Territory and their fees for this purpose may be fixed.

The committee of three doctors nominated by the Bench should carefully examine the patient and also consult the record of the patient as well as taking the views of the hospital staff and submit its report to the High Court Bench.

Simultaneously with appointing the committee of doctors, the High Court Bench shall also issue notice to the State and close relatives e.g. parents, spouse, brothers/sisters etc. of the patient, and in their absence his/her next friend, and supply a copy of the report of the doctor's committee to them as soon as it is available. After hearing them, the High Court bench should give its verdict. The above procedure should be followed all over India until Parliament makes legislation on this subject.

The High Court should give its decision speedily at the earliest, since delay in the matter may result in causing great mental agony to the relatives and persons close to the patient.

The High Court should give its decision assigning specific reasons in accordance with the principle of `best interest of the patient' laid down by the House of Lords in Airedale's case (supra. The views of the near relatives and committee of doctors should be given due weight by the High Court before pronouncing a final verdict which shall not be summary in nature.

With these observations, this petition is dismissed.

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