Death: It’s inevitable, it’s hurtful and sometimes it’s desired. The notion of death that we all nurture is one in which our breathing chokes and our heart stops beating. However, with the progress of science in today’s day and age, the very concept of death has been redefined. Doctors no longer associate death with the cessation of breath and failure of the heart. Death is now anything that prevents you from feeling alive. More particularly, it is associated with the destruction of the brain stem.

Generally the terms brain death, coma and permanent vegetative state (hereinafter referred to as PVS) have been used synonymously. However there are significant variations among them (Unfortunately, I realize that I must burden the reader with this rather technical yet vital issue) In a nutshell, brain death is a legally recognized form of death in which the patient’s heart is beating but he can’t breathe. The only way in which a patient can be kept alive is through a life supporting machine. Coma is a medical condition in which a patient is completely unresponsive with normal heart and breath rates and thus no advanced life support system is required. PVS is a situation in which the patient’s vitals are normal, but he has no control over his body. He feels, sees, hears and experiences nothing. Now that we’re clear on this, the question before us is simple. Is the usage of Euthanasia in any of these stages, particularly the first and last, legally permissible?

Euthanasia is of 2 types: Voluntary and involuntary (Yes, I’m back with the intricacies). Voluntary euthanasia is one which is administered with the will of the patient. Involuntary is one which is administered when the will of the patient is unavailable, for instance, in the above mentioned cases. These are further divided into Active and Passive Euthanasia. There’s a hair splitting difference between them. Active Euthanasia is one in which drugs are utilized to end the life of the person in distress. Passive Euthanasia is a means whereby nothing is done to save the life of the patient! My objective is simply to analyze both the upsides and the downsides of the provision of ‘Mercy Killing’ and of course, provide you with my own perspective to the same (I couldn’t possibly resist that!)

One of the most significant reasons given by those against this campaign is that relating to the ‘sanctity of the human life’. They say that life is precious and so must be preserved, come what may. Yes, I agree, life is wonderful! However, judging from the patient’s perspective, it’s not that beautiful when one has tubes stuck all over them! It is worth mentioning that many a times , while a patient is in a vegetative state, and on account of the machines stuck to his body, he is more susceptible to infection than closer to recovery. What is a life in which I can’t acknowledge myself, let alone those around me! Those for this motion, contend that when one has the right to live with dignity, he has the right to die with it too. I ask you, what is so dignified about living in conditions when everyone knows that it is a situation in which there is absolutely no chance of recovery and betterment of living standard, when you are nothing but a burden and a painful memory to those around you. At this point, what would seem more attractive, or rather,dignified? Living like a corpse or being free like a soul? Would you rather want people to remember you as a happy memory or as a hurtful liability? I for one, would never call those who seek to relieve me from my agony, ‘murderers.’

Another fundamental aspect that has been brought to light by the advocates of what appears to be passive Euthanasia, is that no person can be treated without his consent. Any treatment given by a doctor to a patient which is invasive (i.e. involves any interference with the physical integrity of the patient) is unlawful unless done with the consent of the patient: it constitutes the crime of battery and the tort of trespass to the person. Thus, the patient should be allowed to pass away naturally, and kept as comfortable as possible. Nothing more.

That said, I must also mention that the reason our law makers and interpreters have taken to the grey area in such a matter is the inevitable fear of its being misused. People in our country, sadly so, put themselves in life threatening situations over something as simple as a break up! (I’m seriously not kidding) Such incidents compel the framers of the legal sphere to think a gazillion times before making any recommendations to legalise something as lethal as an injection which can provide you with instant release. Moreover, in cases of involuntary administration of Euthansia, the family of the patient is consulted and asked for their opinion. Your family may know you exceptionally well as a person, but let’s face it, they know squat about the nuances of medicine (even if they’re doctors, emotions tend to get in the way). In such situations, their advice about whether the patient should live or die, cannot be considered absolute. Moreover, they are always asked what the patient would have wanted should he have been able to respond. Now, this is a tricky one. The wish of the patient is determined to a very great extent by his personality. No two people have the same personality, so, for instance, if one may have consented to be put out of his pain, another, might have wanted to fight it out. Going by this logic, if Euthanasia could have been administered to them under such conditions, two patients, with the same problem would be provided with completely different courses of treatment! The law however, is not formulated according to one’s personality. Thank heavens. In addition to this, it has been argued that there are numerous individuals who are unable to avail of any proper medical treatment on account of lack of adequate resources and that it is better to divert them towards a patient who has a chance of having a better life than towards one who has no hopes of every knowing what it is to be alive.

In India, the courts have acknowledged the administration of passive euthanasia subject to the following guidelines:

  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.
  2. 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.
  3. When such an application is filled, 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. A committee of three reputed doctors to be nominated by the Bench, who will give report regarding the condition of the patient. Before giving the verdict a notice regarding the report should be given to the close relatives and the State. After hearing the parties, the High Court can give its verdict.

Very recently, it has been revealed, that many people throughout the country have began preparing ‘living wills’ in order to combat such circumstances, should they ever arise. It will be interesting to note whether India does join other nations like Belgium, Netherlands etc: to ever legalise active euthanasia.

Rakhee Menon


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