Passive Euthanasia is permissible; Human beings have a fundamental right to die with dignity: Supreme Court [Full Report]

Supreme Court:

“Why should I fear death?

If I am, then death is not.

If death is, then I am not.

Why should I fear that which

can only exist when I do not?” – Epicurus

This is one of the several profound quotes quoted by the Constitution Bench in its 538-page long verdict on the issue of Euthanasia.

In 4 separate but concurring opinions, the 5-judge Constitution Bench of Dipak Misra, CJ and AK Sikri, AM Khanwilkar, Dr. DY Chandrachud and Ashok Bhushan, JJ held that the right to die with dignity is a fundamental right as held in Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab, (1996) 2 SCC 648 and that ‘passive euthanasia’, both, voluntary and involuntary, is permissible. The Court said:

“the right to live with dignity also includes the smoothening of the process of dying in case of a terminally ill patient or a person in PVS with no hope of recovery. A failure to legally recognize advance medical directives may amount to non-facilitation of the right to smoothen the dying process and the right to live with dignity.”

CJI, for himself and Khanwilkar, J:

Explaining why only passive euthanasia is permissible and not active euthanasia, CJI, writing for himself and Khanwilkar, J, said that there is an inherent difference between active euthanasia and passive euthanasia as the former entails a positive affirmative act, while the latter relates to withdrawal of life support measures or withholding of medical treatment meant for artificially prolonging life. Withdrawal of treatment in an irreversible situation is different from not treating or attending to a patient and that once passive euthanasia is recognized in law regard being had to the right to die with dignity when life is ebbing out and when the prolongation is done sans purpose, neither the social morality nor the doctors‘ dilemma or fear will have any place.

Living Will versus Advance Medical Directive:

The Court also refrained from using the term ‘living will’ and said that the concept ‘advance medical directive’ should be applied in our country. To understand both the concepts, the Court also provided with the definitions:

The Black’s Law Dictionary defines an Advance Medical Directive as,

“a legal document explaining one’s wishes about medical treatment if one becomes incompetent or unable to communicate.”

A Living Will, on the other hand, is

“a document prescribing a person’s wishes regarding the medical treatment the person would want if he was unable to share his wishes with the health care provider.”

Advance Medical Directive:

Laying down detailed safeguards and directions with respect to Advance Medical Directive, the Court that:

  • the said document can be executed by an adult who is of a sound and healthy state of mind and in a position to communicate, relate and comprehend the purpose and consequences of executing the document. However, it should be voluntarily executed and without any coercion or inducement or compulsion and after having full knowledge or information and must have characteristics of an informed consent given without any undue influence or constraint.
  • The said document shall be in writing clearly stating as to when medical treatment may be withdrawn, or no specific medical treatment shall be given which will only have the effect of delaying the process of death that may otherwise cause him/her pain, anguish and suffering and further put him/her in a state of indignity.
  • It should be signed by the executor in the presence of two attesting witnesses, preferably independent, and countersigned by 173 the jurisdictional Judicial Magistrate of First Class (JMFC) so designated by the concerned District Judge.
  • If permission to withdraw medical treatment is refused by the Medical Board, it would be open to the executor of the Advance Directive or his family members or even the treating doctor or the hospital staff to approach the High Court by way of writ petition under Article 226 of the Constitution.
  • Also, an individual may withdraw or alter the Advance Directive at any time when he/she has the capacity to do so and by following the same procedure as provided for recording of Advance Directive. Withdrawal or revocation of an Advance Directive must be in writing.

Absence of Advance Medical Directive:

  • In cases where the patient is terminally ill and undergoing prolonged treatment in respect of ailment which is incurable or where there is no hope of being cured, the physician may inform the hospital which, in turn, shall constitute a Hospital Medical Board (HMB).
  • HMB, after discussing with the family physician and the family members of the patient, may form a preliminary opinion on whether or not to withdraw the treatment. The final decision, however, will be endorsed by JMFC after it has visited the patient, verified the medical reports, examined the condition of the patient and discussed with the family members of the patient.

Sikri, J:

It is an undisputed that Doctors’ primary duty is to provide treatment and save life but not in the case when a person has already expressed his desire of not being subjected to any kind of treatment. It is a common law right of people, of any civilized country, to refuse unwanted medical treatment and no person can force him/her to take any medical treatment which the person does not desire to continue with.

Chandrachud, J:

While upholding the legality of passive euthanasia (voluntary and nonvoluntary) and in recognising the importance of advance directives, the present judgment draws sustenance from the constitutional values of liberty, dignity, autonomy and privacy. In order to lend assurance to a decision taken by the treating doctor in good faith, this judgment has mandated the setting up of committees to exercise a supervisory role and function. Besides lending assurance to the decision of the treating doctors, the setting up of such committees and the processing of a proposed decision through the committee will protect the ultimate decision that is taken from an imputation of a lack of bona fides.

Bhushan, J:

In   cases   of incompetent patients who are unable to take an informed decision, “the best interests principle” be applied and such   decision   be   taken   by   specified   competent   medical experts   and   be   implemented   after   providing   a   cooling period to enable aggrieved person to approach the court of law.

Conclusion:

  • Right to die with dignity is a fundamental right.
  • an adult human being having mental capacity   to   take   an   informed   decision   has   right   to refuse medical treatment including withdrawal from life saving devices.
  • A person of competent mental faculty is entitled to execute an advance medical directive in accordance with safeguards.
  • In case of incompetent patients and absence of advance medical directive, “the best interest principle” is to be applied and decision is to be taken by competent experts.

The Court, however, made clear that the Advance Directives and the safeguards as mentioned in the judgment will remain in force till the Parliament makes legislation on this subject. [Common Cause v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 208, decided on 09.03.2018]

To read the background of the case, click here.

One comment

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    I don’t see any tangible difference between active and passive euthanasia. I can kill a person or starve him/her to death by withholding food. That’s the same difference between an act and an omission. Going by that logic, omissions under the Indian Penal Code are superfluous.

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