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Article 21 and legal position of Euthanasia

Article 21 states that: No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law.

Article 21 protects the right to life and personal liberty of citizens from the executive and legislative action (After Maneka Gandhi's Case). A person can be deprived of his life and personal liberty if two conditions are complied with. I) There must be Law II) There must be a procedure prescribed by law which should be just, fair and reasonable.

The right guaranteed under Article 21 is available to citizens as well as non-citizens.

Prior to Maneka Gandhi Case, there was a different meaning given to Article 21 which was laid down in A.k Gopalan V. Union of India, AIR 1950 AC 27. The reasoning that came out of that case was that fundamental rights were not interconnected and constituted independent Articles. This doctrine is known as procedural due process. The court held that Article 21 and 19 deal with different aspects of liberty.

But in Maneka Gandhi V. Union of India 1978 SC 597, the Supreme Court has overruled the Gopalan's Case and has widened the scope of the word Personal liberty. Bhagwati J. Said:
The attempt of the court should be to expand the reach and the ambit of the fundamental rights rather than to attenuate their meaning and content by a process of judicial construction.

That is when a new dimension was added in the meaning of Article 21 and it was held that procedure under Article 21 had to be fair, just, and reasonable and would have to be also tested with Article 14 and 19 and by following substantive due process Article 21 began expanding and the term personal liberty begin to include a wide variety of things.

An aspect of Article 21 is the Procedure established by law:

The procedure established by law has to be just, fair and reasonable not oppressive or arbitrary. Unless the procedure established by law is not just fair and reasonable, the requirements of Article 21 will not be satisfied. Now a question arises. What is fair or just? A procedure to be fair or just must embody the principles of natural justice. The court said, Law should be reasonable law, and not enacted piece of law. This judgment was held in Maneka Gandhi's case whereas in Gopalan's case this was not followed.

Article 21 is worded in negative terms but it is now settled that Article 21 has both negative and positive dimensions.

There are some rights which are held to be covered under Article 21:

  1. Right to Health
  2. Right to live with human dignity
  3. Right to livelihood
  4. Right to shelter
  5. Right to privacy
  6. Right to sleep

Inter-relation of Article 14, 19 and 21

In Gopalan's case, the Supreme court held that Article 19 has no application to laws depriving a person of his life and personal liberty enacted under Article 21 of the constitution. It was held that both Articles dealt with different subjects. The view of the majority was that so long as a law of preventive detention satisfies the requirements of Article 22, it would not be required to meet the challenges of Article 19.

But this view has been overruled in Maneka Gandhi's Case and it was held that Article 21 is controlled by Article 19 and that it must satisfy the requirements of Article 19 also. Thus a law depriving a person of personal liberty has not only to stand the test of Article 21 but it must stand the test of Article 19 and Article 14 of the constitution.

The legal position of Euthanasia in India:

Euthanasia is the practice of intentionally ending a life to relieve pain and suffering.

To understand the legal position of euthanasia in India we need to understand that Whether the right to die is a fundamental Right covered under Article 21? This question first came up for consideration in State of Maharashtra V. Maruty Sripati Dubal (1986) 88 Bom LR 589, the Bombay High Court held that right to life includes a right to die and consequently, the court struck down section 309 of IPC which provides punishment for an attempt to commit suicide.

On the other hand, the Andhra Pradesh High Court in Chenna Jagdeshwar v. State of A.P 1988 Cr LJ 549 held that right to die is not a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 21 and hence 309 is not unconstitutional.

The division bench of the Apex Court in P. Rathinam V. Union of India (1994) 3 SCC 394 agreeing with the view of the Bombay High Court in Maruti sripati Dubal case held that a person has a Right to die. The court held that that right to live in Article 21 includes the Right not to live. This view of the apex court was rightly corrected by the Five Judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in Gian Kaur V. State of Punjab (1996) 2 SCC 648, the judge overruled the P.Rathinam's case and held that right to life under Article 21 of the Indian constitution does not include right to die or right to be killed.

Justice J.S Verma observed;
Any aspect of life which makes it dignified may be read into Article 21 of the constitution but not which extinguishes it and is, therefore inconsistent with the continued existence of life resulting in effacing the right itself

The court made it clear that right to life including the right to live with human dignity would mean the existence of such right up to the end of natural life. This also includes the right to a dignified life up to the point of death including a dignified procedure of death.

Thus Court set aside the judgment of the Bombay High Court In Maruti Sripati Dubal case and the decision of the Supreme Court in P. Rathinam's case and upheld the judgment of the Andhra Pradesh High court in Chenna Jagdeshwar's case.

As we can see from the judgment of the Apex Court in Gian Kaur's case, right to die is not a fundamental right, so a question came up for consideration in Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaugh V. Union of India AIR 2011 SC 1290, whether euthanasia can be given to the person, to let them die peacefully?

As the petitioner, in this case, was a close friend of Aruna, who was in a persistent vegetative state after her brutal rape for many years, the two-judge bench of the Supreme Court laid down the guidelines for passive Euthanasia and legalized it but in this particular case, passive Euthanasia was allowed subject to certain conditions and subject to the approval of the High Court after following the due procedure as laid down by the Court in the case.

A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court in 2014 had termed the judgment in Aruna Shanbaugh inconsistent and referred the matter to Euthanasia to its Five Judge Constitution Bench. The constitution bench in Common Cause (A registered society) v/s Union of India on 9th March 2018 held that passive euthanasia can be given by means of the withdrawal of life support to patients in a permanent vegetative state. Active Euthanasia is still not legal in India. Active Euthanasia means the administration of lethal compounds for the purpose of ending life.

The Supreme Court of India declared through a five-judge Constitution bench that, if strict guidelines are followed, the government would honor the right to the dignified procedure of death allowing consenting patients to be passively euthanized if the patient suffers from a terminal illness or is in a vegetative state. At present there is no act which talks about passive euthanasia, the ruling of the Supreme Court is the law of the land until any legislation is enacted by the parliament.

The scope and ambit of Article 21 is very vast and it includes any aspect of life which makes it dignified and it also includes the right to a dignified life up to the point of death including a dignified procedure of death. The term dignified procedure of death has been taken into consideration while dealing with euthanasia and it has been held that following certain guidelines in certain cases passive euthanasia can be allowed. Active Euthanasia is not legal in India.

End Notes:
  1. Article 21,14 and 19 of the Indian Constitution
  2. A.K Gopalan V. Union of India 1950 SC 27
  3. Maneka Gandhi V. Union of India AIR 1978 SC 597
  4. Gian Kaur v. State of India (1996) 2 SCC 648
  5. Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaugh V. Union of India AIR 2011 SC 1290
  6. Common Cause (A registered society) V. Union of India

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