IS EUTHANASIA A NECESSARY EVIL?
The word Euthanasia has been derived from a Greek word which means ‘good death’. It refers to intentionally ending someone’s life to relieve his/her suffering or pain. It should never be misunderstood as killing.
The first use of the word ‘euthanasia’ can be recorded to Emperor Augustus, who died quickly without suffering in arms of his wife and experienced ‘euthanasia’ as he wished. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and painful disease or in an irreversible coma”. However, this definition which includes suffering of the patient has several ill effects also like intentionally killing a person in the name of suffering and incurable disease just for personal gain. Few experts refer that such definition not helps the suffering patients rather makes murder simpler and legal. Considering all these facts, another element of ‘intention’ was included in the definition of euthanasia. While exercising any such practice, the patient’s willingness must be considered. Also, the motive of the person who is exercising such practice should be good and free from any personal benefits.
Based on the informed consent of the patient, euthanasia may be classified into three types, voluntary, non-voluntary and involuntary. These three types of euthanasia can be further classified into sub- categories of active and passive variants. Passive euthanasia encompasses stopping the medical facilities that are essential for continuation of life. Active euthanasia refers to use of lethal substance and force to end someone’s life. Active mode is the most debated worldwide. There has been much debate in the society about non-voluntary methods of euthanasia where the consent of the patient is not considered. While some believe it should not be considered as one of the criteria, given the mental state of patient, other says consent remains essential to the practice of euthanasia. Voluntary euthanasia refers to the practice when it is conducted with the consent of the patient. In Belgium, Luxembourg and Netherlands, active voluntary euthanasia is legalised while passive voluntary euthanasia is legal in the United States of America. Assisted suicide is another word that is used with euthanasia. It refers to a person ending his life with assistance of a physician. Switzerland and many states of US have legalised assisted suicides in their country. Euthanasia, which is conducted when the consent of the patient is not taken, is termed as non-voluntary euthanasia. A very prominent example of non-voluntary euthanasia is child euthanasia. Although, it has been declared illegal worldwide, but still is practicable under some circumstances in the Netherlands. Apart from these two types, another type of euthanasia is conducted – involuntary euthanasia. It is done against the will of the patient to perform such thing. This practice is condemned worldwide.
In India, passive euthanasia has been legalised. In March 2011, through its ruling, the Supreme Court of India legalised conducting passive euthanasia by removing life support system of patients who are in permanent vegetative state. The ruling was awarded while dealing with the case of a patient, who has been in a vegetative state for 37 years at the hospital. Active euthanasia was already banned by the High Court. Also, the Supreme Court said that the decision given would act as the law of the land until the Indian Parliament works on a proper framework and enact suitable law to regulate the practice of euthanasia. Active euthanasia by administration of lethal medical compounds remains illegal in India including many countries.
The debate of euthanasia in India was surfaced with the case of a patient (name undisclosed), who was working at a hospital in Mumbai. While on her duty, she was strangled and sodomised by a sweeper working in the same hospital. During this incidence, she was strangled with a chain, asphyxiation cut off oxygen supply to her brain, resulting in brain stem contusion injury and cervical cord injury due to which she was in vegetative state ever since. She is being treated at the same hospital and has been kept alive on a feeding tube. Considering such painful situation, one of her social activist friend filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India which argued that ‘continued existence of the patient is violation of her right to live with dignity’. Although, the Supreme Court rejected the petition to discontinue the life of the patient, but it issued broad guidelines to legalise passive euthanasia in India. According to these guidelines, passive euthanasia meant removal of support system like medical facilities or food from the patient. The other major aspects which were included in the ruling were, “the decision to discontinue the life has to be taken by parents, spouse, close relative or in absence of them, any person acting as next friend. Also, after such decision has been taken by the relatives, it must be approved by the concerned High Court to exercise euthanasia. The Chief Justice of the concerned High Court should constitute a bench of at least two judges to look into the matter and present a report to the relatives before delivery of judgment. The judgment indeed was a landmark for regulation of euthanasia in India.
The technological advancement in medical sciences has been witnessed by India as well as the rest of the world. With such advancements, we have developed machineries to prolong life by artificial means. Although this increases the life span of the patient, but it also increases the suffering and the cost to the family. Hence, the issue of ending life has become of prime importance in the field of medical sciences in India. Although, the historic judgment of the Supreme Court has supported the pro-euthanasia activists, the way ahead is still very long until the Parliament of India enacts any law suitable according to the guidelines of the Supreme Court. Also, until the law is enacted the possibility of its misuse remains a major threat to disturb the fabric of the society. Whatever be the situation, the onus is on the Indian Government to devise a framework to regulate this practice legally only for some special cases, as soon as possible.