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DIGNIFIED DEATH

When Virginia Woolf decided to take her life at the age of 59 for fear of the recurrence of a devastating depression, sections of the British press described her decision as cowardly and selfish. This ungenerous attitude epitomizes the opinion of those who look upon suicide as a sin committed against the giver of life. The moral, theological and practical implications of legalizing death-at-will and euthanasia, or mercy killing, had become a talking point in Woolf’s native country, Britain, and it preceded an intense and sharply polarized debate on the Assisted Dying Bill in the House of Lords.

Euthanasia is currently a hot topic in India too, following the apex court’s recent directive to all states and Union territories to submit reports on the matter within eight weeks. In 2011, the apex court had laid down a set of directives that made provisions for passive euthanasia — death induced by the withdrawal of life-support and/or food — under extraordinary circumstances and on the approval of the High Court concerned. However, there is still no law in the country allowing euthanasia to be carried out smoothly and in all applicable cases. The court’s recent directive initiates the process whereby Parliament can amend the Constitution to legalize euthanasia.

Whatever the philosophical implications, common sense says that a person who is incurably and severely ill should be allowed to die legally. Without the right to terminate a hopelessly painful existence, an individual is condemned to a life of endless agony. The will of a person trapped in such circumstances to die should be honoured by the people and the State.

With care

But how are we to determine that a person willing to terminate his or her life has not taken the decision under extraneous influence or coercion? Let us consider the case of a terminally ill patient, who is unable to decide for himself/herself or express his/her opinion. In such cases, the family has to take the crucial decision. Whether the death is induced actively by drugs or passively by discontinuing life support — incidentally, the more painful process — this would amount to killing a legally innocent person. The moral sanction of such an act, however, could be the fact that the person concerned is in acute pain or that the dignity of life is sullied when a person is wholly dependent on others and on technology to remain ‘alive’.

But giving constitutional ratification to even passive euthanasia opens up the possibility of potential abuse. Descendants or near kin might stand to gain by hastening the death of a patient. The law in favour of euthanasia would need to have enough checks and balances in order to guard against such vested interests and to ward off the possibility of the development of an unholy nexus between patient parties and medical men. In a populous country like ours prone to corruption at all levels, this sort of immunity would be difficult to achieve.

Much debate and discussion are needed to arrive at a morally acceptable and workable legal framework, which would ensure the dispensation of relief while guarding against motivated, but indirect, murder. The Supreme Court has rightly asked the state governments to ponder the issue. Even a wider, nationwide debate would not be out of place. On a momentous matter like euthanasia, the Indian State should heed the opinion of people and experts alike.

The time has come perhaps to rise above puritanical objections to taking a life that has practically ended. But in creating provisions for such an eventuality, haste is to be totally eschewed — caution and care should be the guiding principles. A delay in arriving at a good legal solution would be preferable to hastily implementing a poor one.