In their coming hither as well as going hence, human beings do not really have much of a choice. They cannot choose not to be born, and there are difficult legal, ethical, moral and theological obstacles to killing oneself, even when to carry living has become unbearably and irreversibly painful. This unfreedom at either end of a human life radically qualifies the primary value given to agency and choice in the definition of the ‘human’. Yet, euthanasia — killing oneself or somebody else as an act of mercy — remains central to notions of the ‘humane’ and in discussions of what constitutes the basic human rights. So, the law commission’s recommendation for a separate legislation regarding the withdrawal of life support to terminally ill patients is welcome. This revives the debate around the bill of 2006, which gained ground when the Supreme Court allowed “passive euthanasia” under exceptional circumstances in 2011. It should be noted that the apex court had provided the guidelines for such a move even as it vetoed the plea for the withdrawal of life-support for Aruna Shanbaug because the hospital staff who have been looking after Ms Shanbaug for almost four decades think that she has not yet lost the will to live.
Euthanasia is most problematic when it is not passive, and it could be ‘active’ in two senses. First, when a hopelessly suffering patient is actively put to death by a doctor or family member; and second, when it is an active decision by the patient. Giving legal sanction to the right of a patient to refuse treatment under specific circumstances is the real issue that the law commission hopes to revive. It considers this to be a basic right and the legislation should enable all parties concerned — the patient, the doctors, family and friends — to exercise or protect this right to die with dignity. In a country where poverty and illiteracy are chronic, the ability to make an informed and disinterested decision about this is not always easy to ensure. So, care has to be taken with each case to prevent the abuse of such a law. Yet, the complexity of these difficult, yet humane, decisions cannot always be subsumed under the category of the ‘legal’ to be resolved in a court of law. The family, institutions of care and, more than anything else, the sensitivity and scrupulosity of individuals are often where such matters of life and death have to be lived out in all their particularity.