Legalising the Right to Die: Let not their be another Aruna

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With the passage of time, it has now been acknowledged that the ‘Right to Life’ guaranteed by Article 21 of our Constitution is the grandest and the most spacious of all the Fundamental Rights, which states that “no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law”.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court has appeared to be drawing inspiration from the connotation of ‘life’ in Munn v. Illinois, as delivered by Field J., who stated that ‘by the term ‘life’ something more is meant than mere animal existence. The inhibition against its deprivation extends to all those limbs and faculties by which life is enjoyed’, and therefore the expression ‘procedure established by law’ has been interpreted by the Apex Court, in the landmark judgment of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, to mean just, fair and reasonable procedure and not any procedure. The right to life is the most fundamental of all the human rights, and any act which may put the individual’s life at risk, must call for the most anxious scrutiny.

Focussing on the case of Aruna Shanbaug, who was terminally ill, in a vegetative state, locked up in her own body since the past 42 years, waited for a slow and painful death, and died recently. So one has to ponder as to how this would justify the right to life with dignity as provided under Article 21, where the condition of the patient was severely critical.

This debatable issue of Euthanasia has cropped up once again with the recent demise of Aruna Shanbaug. The increased importance given to the individual autonomy over the societal interest has been one of the major reasons for lateral thinking in the direction of legalizing euthanasia in a sacred nation like that of India. On the one end of pendulum, we see people speaking for sanctity of life, and on the other, we find those who advocate for individual autonomy in its extreme sense.

The debatable question for deliberation has been that, whether the right to life provided under Article 21 also includes the right to die? If Article 21 grants a person the right to live in a dignified way, does it also bestow on the person, a right not to live, if the person chooses to end his/her life in the absence of a dignified life.

In India, euthanasia is not considered legal as it has been contended that there lies an intention on the part of the doctor/any other interested party, to kill the patient for personal reasons, and that such cases would clearly fall under clause (i) of Section 300 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. However, in such cases, there is the valid consent of the deceased (Exception 5 to the said Section) and the doctor or the mercy killer would be punishable under Section 304 for culpable homicide not amounting to murder. But it is only in cases of voluntary euthanasia (where the patient consents to death) that would attract Exception 5 to Section 300. Cases of non-voluntary and involuntary euthanasia would be struck by proviso one to Section 92 of the IPC and thus be rendered illegal.

More often, there has been a contention that euthanasia and suicide are assessed with the same yardstick. Lodha J. in Naresh Marotrao Sakhre v. Union of India, distinguished euthanasia from suicide and observed that “suicide by its very nature is an act of self-killing or self-destruction, an act of terminating one’s own act and without the aid or assistance of any other human agency. Euthanasia or mercy killing on the other hand means and implies the intervention of other human agency to end the life. The two concepts are both factually and legally distinct.

Moreover, after the decision of a five judge bench of the Supreme Court in Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab it is well settled that the ‘right to life’ guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution does not include the ‘right to die’.

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