The Euthanasia Debate – Better Dead Than Alive?

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“But if any have torturing, lingering pain, without hope of recovery or ease, the priests and magistrates repair to them and exhort them, since they are unable to proceed with the business of life… Since they forfeit none of the pleasures, but only the troubles of life by this, they think they not only act reasonably, but consistently with religion; for they follow the advice of their priests, the expounders of God’s will.” — Thomas More, Utopia

It must seem surprising but the author Thomas More, a revered saint and social philosopher, according to many devout Catholics, had pushed for the right to die as early as sixteenth century. Despite being the quintessential Catholic, More, in his literary masterpiece Utopia, had run against the grain of presuming life to be the gift of god alone. To him, the argument seemed simple. If the person concerned was grappling with lingering pain without the hope of any recovery, why should one exhort such an illness? If they (the people suffering) do not stand to give up on the pleasures of life, can’t priests and magistrates relieve them of these troubles? By doing that, wouldn’t they be then acting in a reasonable fashion and in tandem with religion and God’s will?

Utopia, published in 1516, refers to More’s imagination of a political system within an ideal and imaginary state. In other words, an argument that could easily be made in Utopia, can perhaps, fail to make the mark in a world where structures and institutions have a greater say over an individual’s voice. So, on 18 May 2015, when the curtains went down on Aruna Shanbaug, who spent 42 years of her life in a hospital bed in south Mumbai, the nation state of India stood perplexed as the once-muted debate on euthanasia became vocal. Approximately, three days earlier, 11,000 miles away, in the country of Chile, 14-year-old Valentina Maureira, died of complications arising from cystic fibrosis (incurable genetic disorder that mostly affects the lungs and the pancreas, liver and intestine). A month back, Valentina’s last request to the Chilean government had been politely refused. “I urgently request to speak to the president because I am tired of living with this illness. I want her approval so I can get a shot that will make me sleep forever,” the teenager had emotionally stated in the video.

On 27 November 1973, Aruna Shanbaug was sodomised and tied with a dog chain by a ward boy at Mumbai’s King Edward Memorial Hospital (KEM). The choking by the chain cut off the oxygen supply to the brain and left her in a passive vegetative state. Shanbaug was discovered by the staff in the wee hours of the ill-fated morning. Ever since this incident, Shanbaug was cared for by the medical fraternity at the hospital. Speaking to Tehelka, Lakhbir Kaur, who had worked as a nurse with KEM since 1978 says, “We were 17 or 18 when we began doing our internship with the hospital. Not many of us were aware of the details or privy to the heinous nature of the crime. I can even say that we weren’t half as smart as all of you are at your age. So, when we became staffers (after internship), we were carrying forward a tradition. Aruna was our senior and one of our own. So, we did what everyone else did before us. We took care of her just like our own child.”

In 2009, when Pinki Virani, journalist and writer had filed a writ petition seeking to allow a peaceful exit for Aruna, Shanbaug had unknowingly become the face of the burgeoning debate on legalising euthanasia in India. Etymologically described as an easy and happy death, euthanasia started becoming a contentious issue in India in 1986 when Maruti Shripati Dubal, a police constable who developed schizophrenia and other mental ailments in a car crash, had attempted to commit suicide by self-immolation.

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According to Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), any attempt to commit suicide or any act towards the commission of such offence is subject to punishment. Under this provision, any person resorting to euthanasia which translates to a wilful ending of one’s life is a violation of the law. Therefore, anyone involved in helping the said person execute that decision is also punishable under Section 306 which prohibits abetment of suicide. At the same time, the Constitution of India under Article 21 gives every individual the right to life and personal liberty. In further judgments, the Supreme Court of India has interpreted this right to life as ‘the right to quality life’. However, cases like that of Aruna Shanbaug poke holes in this discourse. Does a person confined to a vegetative existence not have the right to call it quits? Similarly, where must we place people who suffer from terminal illness as Valentina, who had undergone extreme pain, before finally passing away?

In response to the petition filed by Virani, the judgment given by the benches headed by Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra in 2011, had thrown light on the ambiguous nature of the debate. “We feel like a ship in an uncharted sea,” stated Katju and Mishra in the judgment. Though the judges dismissed Virani’s plea, they pioneered the debate on passive euthanasia by providing that, in future, the patient involved could be examined by a committee of reputed doctors while including the view of the hospital staff and immediate kith and kin of the patient. Once these reports were filed at the earliest, they also directed the high court to come out with a judgment favouring the interest of the patient.

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