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BALANCING LIFE AND DEATH: EUTHANASIA AND THE INDIAN CONSTITUTION'S ARTICLE 21

Author: Fardeen Bin Abdullah, pursuing LL.B.(Hons.) from Department of Law, University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh


Euthanasia, also known as assisted dying, is a controversial topic widely debated in legal, ethical, and medical circles. At its core, euthanasia involves the deliberate ending of a person's life to relieve their suffering or pain. The practice of euthanasia raises essential questions about the right to life, individual autonomy, and the state's role in regulating end-of-life decisions.


In India, the legality of euthanasia is governed by the Indian Constitution's Article 21, which recognizes the right to life and personal liberty. However, the interpretation and application of this constitutional provision in the context of euthanasia have been the subject of much debate and discussion.


This article will examine the balance between the right to life and the right to die through euthanasia in India. It will explore this issue's legal and ethical dimensions and provide insights into how Indian courts have addressed the complex interplay between individual rights and state regulation. Ultimately, this article aims to contribute to a better understanding of the complex issues surrounding euthanasia in India and the role of the Indian Constitution in shaping this debate.


The Right to Life in the Indian Constitution's Article 21

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution recognizes the right to life and personal liberty as fundamental rights of every individual. The significance of this constitutional provision in Indian law cannot be overstated. The right to life is a fundamental human right that is essential for the enjoyment of all other rights, including freedom of speech, religion, and movement.


The SC of India has played a vital role in interpreting and expanding the scope of Article 21. In the landmark case of Kharak Singh v State of UP[i], the court held that the right to life enshrined in Article 21 is not limited to the mere physical existence of an individual but also includes the right to live with dignity and freedom from arbitrary state interference.


In subsequent cases, the court elaborated on interpreting the right to life. In Maneka Gandhi v Union of India[ii], the court held that the right to life is not merely a negative right but also includes the right to live a meaningful life with dignity. The court emphasized the need to balance individual rights and state interests. It recognized the importance of procedural safeguards to ensure that the right to life is not violated in the name of state action.


The right to life also intersects with other fundamental rights, such as the right to health and the right to privacy. In Suchita Srivastava v Chandigarh Administration[iii], the court held that the right to life includes the right to access safe and legal abortion services. The court recognized that denying access to such services can severely impact women's health and life.


In summary, Article 21 of the Indian Constitution recognizes the right to life and personal liberty as fundamental rights. The Supreme Court of India has played a crucial role in interpreting and expanding the scope of this constitutional provision, emphasizing the importance of balancing individual rights with state interests and ensuring procedural safeguards to protect the right to life.


Euthanasia in India

Euthanasia is a complex and controversial issue in India, with different forms of euthanasia recognized and debated in the legal and ethical spheres. In this section, we will explore the different types of euthanasia recognized in India, the legal status of euthanasia, and the ongoing debate surrounding this issue.


Types of euthanasia recognized in India

Passive euthanasia and active euthanasia are two forms of euthanasia recognized in India. Passive euthanasia refers to withdrawing or withholding life-sustaining treatment, such as a ventilator or feeding tube, intending to let the patient die. Active euthanasia, on the other hand, involves administering lethal medication to a patient to end their life.


In the case of Aruna Shanbaug v Union of India[iv], the Indian Supreme Court recognized the right to passive euthanasia, holding that an individual in a persistent vegetative state has no chance of recovery and may choose to have their life support removed.


The legal status of euthanasia in India

While passive euthanasia has been recognized as legal in India, active euthanasia remains illegal. In Common Cause (A Regd. Society) v Union of India[v], the SC upheld the constitutional validity of passive euthanasia and issued guidelines for its implementation. However, the court clarified that active euthanasia is illegal under Indian law.


The debate surrounding euthanasia in India

The debate surrounding euthanasia in India has been ongoing for many years, with different viewpoints and arguments presented by various stakeholders. The issue of euthanasia was first examined by the Supreme Court of India in Gian Kaur v State of Punjab[vi], where the court held that the right to life under Article 21 does not include the right to die.


However, subsequent cases have recognized the right to die with dignity as a fundamental aspect of the right to life, as discussed in above. The debate revolves around the scope of the right to die, the appropriate procedural safeguards for euthanasia, and the potential for abuse or coercion in end-of-life decision-making.


India recognizes passive euthanasia as legal, while active euthanasia remains illegal. The ongoing debate surrounding euthanasia revolves around issues such as the scope of the right to die, procedural safeguards, and the potential for abuse or coercion.


Balancing the Right to Life and the Right to Die through Euthanasia

The issue of euthanasia presents a complex ethical and legal dilemma, with the right to life and the right to die at the forefront of the debate. In India, this debate has been shaped by various judicial pronouncements, legislative developments, public opinion, and religious beliefs.


Arguments for and against euthanasia in the context of the right to life

The debate on euthanasia is complex and contentious. While there are arguments for legalizing euthanasia, there are also arguments against it. Proponents of euthanasia argue that it is a compassionate way to relieve a person's unbearable suffering and to allow them to die with dignity. They believe that the right to die is an extension of the right to life and that individuals should have the autonomy to make choices about their own bodies and lives.


On the other hand, opponents of euthanasia argue that it violates the sanctity of life and the state's duty to protect it. They contend that legalizing euthanasia would create a slippery slope and lead to abuses, such as non-voluntary euthanasia and euthanasia, for economic or convenience reasons. They also believe that palliative care and pain management can effectively alleviate suffering and that legalizing euthanasia would undermine the importance of these options.


In the context of the Indian Constitution's Article 21, arguments for and against euthanasia are deeply rooted in the interpretation of the right to life. Those in favor of legalizing euthanasia argue that it is a necessary extension of the right to life, as it allows individuals to exercise control over their own bodies and to choose to end their suffering. They point out that denying individuals the right to euthanasia can be a cruel and inhumane punishment for those who are terminally ill or suffering from unbearable pain.


In Sankalp Rehabilitation Trust v Union of India[vii], the Supreme Court of India upheld an individual's right to life and autonomy to choose their end-of-life care. However, it did not legalize euthanasia, instead allowing for the withdrawal of life support in exceptional circumstances. The court also laid down guidelines for passive euthanasia in India, also known as the withdrawal of life support.


On the other hand, opponents of euthanasia argue that the right to life is inviolable and that the state must protect it. They contend that allowing euthanasia would create a culture of death and lead to a disregard for the sanctity of life. They also point out that the Indian Constitution recognizes the right to life and not the right to die and that euthanasia would go against the spirit of the Constitution.


The debate on euthanasia in the context of the right to life is ongoing, with both sides presenting compelling arguments. It is up to the courts and the government to strike a balance between the right to life and the right to die through euthanasia, keeping in mind the Constitution, the laws, and the moral values of Indian society.


The role of the state in balancing these rights

The state's role in balancing the right to life and the right to die through euthanasia is a contentious issue in India. While the right to life is recognized as a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, the right to die is not explicitly mentioned. In Narayan MalhariThorat v State of Maharashtra[viii], the Supreme Court recognized the right to refuse medical treatment or life support as an extension of the right to life. However, the court clarified that this right does not include the right to die, and the state must preserve life and prevent suicide.


The court also emphasized the importance of palliative care and pain management for terminally ill patients. Providing such care is considered a state's duty under Article 21, which includes the right to live with dignity. The court observed that "the right to live with dignity includes the right to die with dignity." Thus, the state is responsible for ensuring that terminally ill patients are not subjected to unnecessary pain and suffering and that their end-of-life care is managed with compassion and sensitivity.


The state's role in balancing the right to life and the right to die through euthanasia is also reflected in India's legislation and policies governing healthcare. The Medical Council of India has issued guidelines for end-of-life care, which recommend palliative care and pain management for terminally ill patients. The Indian government has also launched the National Programme for Palliative Care to improve access to palliative care services nationwide.


However, the implementation of these policies and guidelines is often inadequate, particularly in rural areas where healthcare infrastructure is weak. The lack of access to palliative care and pain management often leaves terminally ill patients in a state of agony and distress, leading some to consider euthanasia as a viable option. This underscores the importance of the state's role in balancing the right to life and the right to die through euthanasia and the need for a comprehensive and compassionate approach to end-of-life care in India.


Potential Solutions

One potential solution for balancing the right to life and the right to die in India is to expand the availability of palliative care and pain management for terminally ill patients. This would allow patients to receive appropriate care and support at the end of their lives while respecting their right to refuse medical treatment or life support.


Another solution is establishing a legal framework for passive euthanasia, with clear guidelines and safeguards to prevent abuse. This would allow patients to make informed decisions about their end-of-life care while also ensuring that the practice is carried out responsibly and ethically.


Examples of how other countries have addressed this issue

Euthanasia is a topic of great debate worldwide, and different countries have different approaches. In the United States, euthanasia is illegal, but assisted suicide is allowed in some states, such as Oregon, Washington, and Vermont. In the UK, euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal under the Suicide Act 1961[ix], and doctors who assist in euthanasia or suicide can be prosecuted for murder or manslaughter. However, the Director of Public Prosecutions has issued guidelines on the factors that will be considered when deciding whether to prosecute cases of assisted suicide.


In Australia, euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal under the Criminal Code, but the states of Victoria and Western Australia have passed legislation to legalize voluntary assisted dying. In Pakistan, euthanasia is illegal, and there is no legal framework for assisted suicide.


It is important to note that the approaches of different countries to euthanasia are shaped by their cultural, religious, and legal traditions. The debate around euthanasia is complex, and there are no easy answers. Ultimately, it is up to individual countries to decide how to balance the right to life and death through euthanasia.


Conclusion

The issue of euthanasia in India is complex and raises essential questions about the right to life and the right to die. While there are arguments for and against the practice, it is clear that the Indian state must provide appropriate care and support for terminally ill patients while respecting their autonomy and right to make decisions about their own lives.


The Common Cause (A Regd. Society) v Union of India (2018) judgment provides a potential framework for balancing the right to life and the right to die in India. The judgment allows for passive euthanasia under certain conditions, with clear guidelines and safeguards to prevent abuse.


Indian society needs to continue to engage in a meaningful and respectful dialogue about the issue of euthanasia to ensure that the rights and dignity of terminally ill patients are respected and protected. Ultimately, the goal should be to provide compassionate and appropriate care and support for those at the end of their lives while also upholding the fundamental values of the Indian Constitution.

[i]Kharak Singh v State of UP AIR 1963 SC 1295. [ii]Maneka Gandhi v Union of India, AIR 1978 SC 597. [iii]Suchita Srivastava v Chandigarh Administration (2009) 14 SCC 42. [iv]Aruna Shanbaug v Union of India (2011) 4 SCC 454. [v]Common Cause (A Regd. Society) v Union of India (2018) 5 SCC 1. [vi]Gian Kaur v State of Punjab (1996) 2 SCC 648. [vii]Sankalp Rehabilitation Trust v Union of India, Writ Petition (C) No. 512/1999. [viii]Narayan MalhariThorat v State of Maharashtra, Criminal appeal no. 1487 of 2018. [ix]Suicide Act 1961, the Parliament of the United Kingdom, 1961 CHAPTER 60 9 and 10 Eliz 2.

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