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Do We Have A Right To Die With Dignity?

'Life is meant to be lived cheerfully', so can a life without enjoyment be termed a 'living cadaver'. Dignity is the cloth that coats the bare body.

Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug v. Union of India is one of the largely prominent cases which exhorted the necessity to modify the euthanasia laws in India.

The Constitution of India ensures its citizens "Right to Life" but whether it implicitly furnishes "Right to Die" is nonetheless questionable. Such right was brutally ripped from our protagonist Aruna Shanbaug during her time. Euthanasia is a method of ending one's life without sorrow and distress. Today, Aruna Shanbaug is one of the primary reasons for Passive Euthanasia to be lawful in India.

Parties: Petitioner: Ms.Pinki Virani on behalf of Aruna Ramchandra Shaunbaug v/s Respondent: Union of India
Judges: Justice Markandey Katju And Justice Gyan Sudha Misra
Reference: Air 2011 Sc 1290
Date Of Judgment: 07/03/2011
Court: Supreme Court Of India

Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug was a staff nurse working at Kind Edward Memorial Hospital, Parel, Mumbai. At the workplace, a sweeper tried to rape her and when he found that she was on her menstrual cycle he sodomised and left her strangulated. The subsequent day she was hospitalised by a staff who found her lying on the floor with blood all over in a lifeless state.

The happening dates back to 27th November 1973 but when the case was brought before the SC in 2011 around 37 years passed away leaving her in an unfortunate health condition. Though she was relinquished by her family members the nurses of KEM Hospital took good care of her. Later, Ms Pinki Virani who claimed to be the next pal of Aruna Ramachandra Shaunbaug filed a writ of mandamus in the SC under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution to direct the respondents to stop feeding Aruna and let her die peacefully.

Issue Raised:
  1. Whether Passive Euthanasia can be permitted for a person who is in a permanent vegetative state (PVS)?
  2. Who is the applicable surrogate for Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug to decide whether Passive Euthanasia be allowed to her or not?

Analysis Of Various Aspects
Concept of Euthanasia:
In this case, the court has elucidated the concept of Euthanasia. Euthanasia/mercy killing is of two types. Active Euthanasia is where a fatal substance or some power is used to kill a person who is suffering from pain or ailment. Passive Euthanasia is withholding from doing medical treatment which leads to casualty. In parts of the world, Active Euthanasia is unlawful until it's permitted by law. In India, it is illegal too. Voluntary euthanasia is the one in which permission is brought from the patient and involuntary euthanasia is the one in which permission is unavailable. The case of Aruna Shanbaug is passive involuntary euthanasia.

Right to Die:
In the case of State of Maharashtra v. Maruty Shripati Dubal, in 1987, the Bombay High Court struck down Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code with the argument that it was ultra virus to the Article 21 and Article 19 of The Constitution of India. The court said the Right to life incorporates the Right to live as well as the Right to end one's life if one so desires. The court clearly stated in this case that the right to die is not unnatural.

In the case of P. Rathinam v. Union of India, the Court inferred that every positive facet of a right would also include a negative facet just the same way in which the right to freedom of speech and expression includes the right to silence. The petitioner further argued that the right to live incorporates the right not to live a forced life. Every person should be ensured the right to die with dignity and denied extended medical treatments which artificially hold the life of the person.

In the case of Gian Kaur v. the State of Punjab, the validity of Section 306 of the IPC was in query, which penalised the abetment of suicide. Though, the constitutional validity of Sections 306 and 309 was maintained. This case overruled P.Rathinam's case and held its analogy wrong but also explained that it will not be looking into the issue of Euthanasia and differentiated between the Right to die (unnaturally) and the Right to die with dignity (naturally).

The case didn't discuss much the jurisdiction of Article 21 which lightly exempts it from citation under this case. It mainly revolves around the abetment of suicide rather than the right to die with dignity which a person in a vegetative state holds.

196th Law Commission Report:
In the year of 2006, The Law Commission of India released its 196th Report which suggested that there must be a law made to safeguard terminally ill patients who decline medical treatment, artificial nutrition, or hydration from Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. Likewise, the doctors who regard such a decision of the patient, or who make the decision for incompetent patients in the best interests of such patients, must be insulated from punishment under Section 306 of the IPC (abetment of suicide) or Section 299 (culpable homicide).

Also, such actions of doctors must be proclaimed 'lawful'. The Law Commission suggested to Parliament that the law be called the 'The Medical Treatment of Terminally Ill Patients (Protection of Patients, Medical Practitioners) Act.

Questions That Still Exist
Although in the final judgement of the Aruna Shanbaug case, the court defined the procedure to be followed for the approval of passive euthanasia, the court did not apparently mention whether "The right to Die with Dignity" will come under article 21 which provides us "The right to Live with Dignity".

The court also didn't give a clarification viewing the matter, if a person is going through a terminal illness and if he is capable, whether he can decide regarding the termination of his life or not.

It is a judicially accepted fact that the term life under Article 21 does not mean mere animal existence but includes all those means which are essential for a dignified life of an individual. Hence, the right to dignified life would be meaningless without a right to a dignified death. A peaceful and dignified death would be much better than living artificially on life-prolonging machines.


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