The Supreme Court wants a countrywide debate on the legality of active and passive euthanasia, and of consciously made “living wills” that state how people may not want to be kept alive medically when there is no hope of going back to a dignified existence. The Centre’s knee-jerk reaction has been to object to such an opening of the public (and private) mind. This is unmodern and irrational, for what is at stake in the debate that the court wants to reopen is a human being’s right to live and die with dignity and a modicum of choice and agency, given that human beings cannot choose not to be born. It is the notion of the “sacredness” of life that also makes attempted suicide a criminal offence in this country. In this matter — as, say, in the matter of changing attitudes to sexuality — the government’s conservative evasiveness does not reflect the general level of public awareness and openness. Most people have, indeed, encountered these questions. In a country dogged by poverty and inadequate healthcare, ordinary Indians battling the daily business of life are able to think and talk about how they want, or do not want, to die without being inhibited by squeamishness or sentimentality. This time, many in the medical profession have also welcomed a debate, taking their positions in favour of legalizing what they prefer to call “end of life decisions” instead of euthanasia.
This is a healthy and reassuring sign, this willingness to grant human beings a measure of autonomy about “last things” — medically, ethically and politically healthy. It means that the Indian democracy, led by its judiciary, is aware of the empowering and dignifying effect of independent-minded rationality regarding issues that appear to be difficult to think through. Yet, even from the point of view of Indian ‘traditions’ of thought and practice, most schools of spirituality have room within them for granting control over one’s own chosen time and mode of death. Of course, the makers and keepers of the law have to be particularly clearheaded and vigilant about the specific and possible situations in which such a right might be used and abused. Death is, after all, the most solitary of experiences. Yet, modern people cannot help dying within a complicated web of technological, legal, social and cultural systems. The government must not stop the country from boldly re-examining these orthodoxies.