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Mercy killing with big bench

New Delhi, Feb. 25: The Supreme Court today referred to a Constitution bench the question of legalising euthanasia, saying an earlier verdict had reflected “inconsistent opinions” on withdrawing medical support to terminally ill patients in a permanent vegetative state.

A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice P. Sathasivam cited the Aruna Shanbaug case and said the 2011 verdict of a smaller bench allowing passive euthanasia in exceptional circumstances was not a proper interpretation of what an earlier Constitution bench had ruled.

“In view of the inconsistent opinions rendered in the Aruna Shanbaug case and also considering the important question of law involved which needs to be reflected in the light of social, legal, medical and constitutional perspective(s), it becomes extremely important to have a clear enunciation of (the) law,” the court said.

“Thus, in our cogent opinion, the question of law involved requires careful consideration by a Constitution bench of this court for the benefit of humanity as a whole.”

The court was disposing of a public interest petition filed by Common Cause, an NGO, which wanted “right to die” to be declared a fundamental right for patients in a permanent vegetative state.

A Constitution bench normally has a minimum of five judges. But depending on the complexity of the issue involved, the number of judges can go up to seven, nine or even 11.

Shanbaug, a former nurse, slipped into a vegetative state after a sexual assault nearly 40 years ago. In March 2011, the Supreme Court had rejected an euthanasia plea for her.

But the two-judge bench prescribed a legal procedure under which relatives of patients in a persistent vegetative state — such as Shanbaug — needed to approach high courts to withdraw life support, or passive euthanasia. Active euthanasia entails use of lethal substances.

The bench had referred to an earlier ruling by a five-judge Constitution bench in 1996 to say that passive mercy killing was permissible.

Today, the bench headed by Justice Sathasivam said the 2011 judgment was not a proper interpretation of the 1996 ruling as the Constitution bench had then clearly stated that euthanasia could be permitted only through legislation.

The three-judge bench, which also included Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Shiva Kirti Singh, said it was not “framing any specific questions for consideration” but inviting the Constitution bench to go into all the aspects involved and lay down “exhaustive” guidelines.

The Centre, which had taken the stand that the primary duty of every doctor was to save lives, had referred to regulation 6.7 of the Indian Medical Council (Professional Conduct, Etiquette and Ethics) Regulations, 2002. The regulation prohibits doctors from practising euthanasia.