Supreme Court of India (Source: Supreme Court of India website)

Supreme Court Recognises Living Will, Passive Euthanasia

The Supreme Court today gave legal sanctity to the living will and euthanasia for people suffering from terminal diseases and reduced to a permanent vegetative state.

A five-judge bench headed by the Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra delivered the unanimous verdict, ruling that every individual has the right to “die with dignity”. The court ruled that active euthanasia will continue to be illegal and called upon the legislature to enact a comprehensive law.

“More significant than the affliction of ageing and disease is the fear of our human persona being lost in the anonymity of an intensive care ward,” Justice DY Chandrachud wrote in his judgement.

It is hence necessary for this court to recognise that our dignity as citizens continues to be safeguarded by the Constitution even when life is seemingly lost and questions about our own mortality confront us in the twilight of existence.
Justice DY Chandrachud In His Judgement

The verdict came on a plea filed by NGO Common Cause which had sought recognition of living wills. It’s a document in which an individual can ask to be taken off life support in case he or she suffers from a chronically terminal disease and is reduced to a permanent vegetative state. Countries like the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada and some states in the U.S. allow passive euthanasia subject to certain conditions.

The bench—that also included Justice AM Khanwilkar and Justice Ashok Bhushan— laid down guidelines before passive euthanasia is granted, including the constitution of a medical board. The government during the hearing had opposed the living will saying it could be misused.

“My last remarks are a pious hope that the legislature would step in at the earliest and enact a comprehensive law on ‘living will/advance directive’ so that there is a proper statutory regime to govern various aspects and nuances thereof which also take care of the apprehensions that are expressed against euthanasia,” Justice Sikri said his judgement.

The debate on passive euthanasia began when lawyer Pinki Virani filed a petition seeking withdrawal of life support from Aruna Shanbaug, a nurse at the King Edward Memorial Hospital, Parel, Mumbai who remained bedridden for more than four decades till her death after a sexual assault. The Supreme Court turned down the plea since doctors declared she was not “brain dead”, according to the judgement.

The top court, however, in its 2011 verdict laid down guidelines that life support can be withdrawn from a patient in a permanent vegetative state if it’s decided by parents, spouse and other close relatives or a doctor in “the best interest of the patient”. The decision has to be approved by a high court.

Watch this discussion with Senior Advocate Prashant Bhushan who is representing Common Cause in the matter and Jayesh Lele, former president of the Indian Medical Association.