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Indian Law on Euthanasia

Shubham Pant, 3rd year MBBS
from Spandan 1996-97 Cover Story on Euthanasia

Like his right to life, does a man have a right to death also? Is physician-aid-in-dying a crime? The legal aspects of euthanasia are understood by few people.

The law, though active in many countries, has been a sleeping giant in India, as euthanasia goes on behind closed doors. The law awoke from its slumber in 1994 by way of a petition filed by P. Rathinam directed against the constitutional validity of Section 309 IPC, which deals with punishment for attempt to commit suicide. (Incidentally, suicide is legal in all states of USA.) The Supreme Court ruled in favour of the petitioner, thereby legalizing suicide and rendering as unconstitutional punishment for abetting of suicide. In this case a corollary was drawn (as a passing reference, or in legal terms an obiter dictum) between euthanasia and suicide. The judgment stated that in cases of passive euthanasia, the consent of the patient (if he be in sound mental condition) is one of the pre-requisites. So, if one could legally commit suicide, he could also give consent for being allowed to die. It went on to say that if suicide was held to be legal, the persons pleading for legal acceptance of passive euthanasia would have a winning point. This judgment came as a shot in the arm for people supporting euthanasia.

However, whatever progress was there came to a grinding halt in 1996, and the state of confusion returned. The same court now upheld the constitutional validity of Sections 309 and 306 thereby legalizing the same. A judgment totally contradictory to the earlier one, this presented a picture of the confusion that prevails in our apex judiciary as far as euthanasia is concerned. The primary basis for taking such a contention was Article 21, which states that all Indians have a right to life and personal liberty. The judgment accepted the view that in a terminally ill patient (one in a Permanent Vegetative State - PVS), mercy killing does not extinguish life, but accelerates conclusion of the process of natural death that has already commenced. But it goes on to say that the scope of Article 21 cannot be widened enough so as to include euthanasia. In the concluding remarks, assisted suicide and abetting of suicide were made punishable, due to "cogent reasons in the interest of society."

So far there has been no reported case of euthanasia per se, but if it does come up, the prosecution will have a definite advantage. The law as of now is still pretty ambiguous on the topic of euthanasia, but we can hope that some concrete steps shall be taken to resolve this burning problem. And the debate continues...

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Copyright (c) 2004, Nikhil Goyal. All rights reserved.