Euthanasia is soon to be allowed in New Zealand as 65% of the people voted in favour of the controversial proposition. They join a long list of countries where assisted dying is legalised. But could it be implemented in India in near future?
New Zealand last week has voted in favour of legalising euthanasia for people with terminal illnesses, joining a long list of countries where assisted dying is allowed by law. The referendum saw over 65% of New Zealanders voting ‘yes’ to legalise euthanasia, clearing the way for the controversial proposition to become law in 2021.
Assisted dying has been legalised in many countries. Colombia was one of the first countries to take a pro-euthanasia step when its apex courts decriminalised it in 1997. The Netherlands was the first to bring out a law in favour of euthanasia in 2002.
Other countries that have legalised assisted dying include Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, Luxembourg, and many states in the United States. But there are also countries like Germany, where it was legalised initially, but withdrawn later.
In Belgium and Colombia, only terminally ill people can go for assisted dying, but there is no such restriction in Canada. There are no global figures for deaths from euthanasia. However, the statistics from Switzerland shows that the number is sharply rising. It rose from 187 in 2003 to 965 in 2015. There has also been a three-fold rise over the last 20 years in the number of euthanasia in the Netherlands.
What does Indian law say?
In 2018, the Supreme Court said in a landmark case that the right to die with dignity is a fundamental right. The court also recognised ‘living wills’ made by terminally-ill patients, paving way for passive euthanasias. It issued guidelines on who can execute the will and under what conditions can the medical board endorse passive euthanasia. The court further said that its guidelines and directives shall remain in force till a legislation is brought to deal with the issue.
Even before this order, Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug vs Union Of India was a significant case in India’s euthanasia debate. Shanbaug had been in a vegetative state since 1973 as a result of a sexual assault.
In 2010, activist-journalist Pinki Virani moved the Supreme Court with a plea to end the life of Shanbaug and help her out of the pain. While responding to the case, the SC issued a set of guidelines to legalise passive euthanasias in the future. Although it rejected a plea to discontinue Shanbaug’s life support because of the objection from the hospital staff, the court’s decision to recognise passive euthanasia was a landmark.
Question of morality and ethics
The key point raised by pro-euthanasia activists is a citizen’s right to die. They claim that death is a private matter and the state has no right to interfere if it does not harm others. In a civilised society, the activists say, people should be able to choose when they are ready to die.
However, this could go against the suicide laws of the country. Especially in India, where an attempt to suicide is a punishable offence, the euthanasia debate becomes complicated. But more than the legal tangles, it is the matter of morality that take the front seats in India’s euthanasia debates.
Except for Jainism, all major religions in India ― Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and Buddhism ― see euthanasia as a sin. Jain scriptures like Sutrakritanga, however, talk about ending life in a dignified way, an argument put forward by the pro-euthanasia activists. There are also examples of Jain gurus fasting until death, but they do not regard this as an act of suicide.
There is also a lot of staff from the medical sector who voice against euthanasia. This is because they pledge to ‘do no harm’ when they take up the profession, regardless of the condition of the patient.
Fear of abuse
Objectors also warn that legislation of euthanasia would encourage abuse of its clauses. The Netherlands has seen its law being transformed from euthanasia for people who are terminally ill to chronically ill. They also expanded the law from euthanasia for physical illness to mental illness. Then they further gave an ambiguous definition as euthanasia for psychological distress or mental suffering. Today, any person who is above 70 and ‘tired of living’ can go for euthanasia in the Netherlands.
Legality in certain countries also promotes suicide tourism, according to experts. In 2018, as many as 221 people travelled to the Netherlands to go for euthanasia as it was not legalised in their country. Among them, 87 were from Germany, 31 from France and 24 from the UK.
It is the loopholes that have forced countries like Germany to take a U-turn on euthanasia and France and the United Kingdom to decide against decriminalisation of the act.
Difficulty in implementation
The Supreme Court of India has issued guidelines and passed the ball to the Parliament’s court. Still, there will be a lot of roadblocks ahead. An option to die with dignity is indeed a fundamental right in a civilised society. But it will be difficult to implement in India where morality and ethics have priority. The bureaucratic system could also pave way for loopholes unless India gets a watertight law.
Experts say India may not be ready for euthanasia yet. But the medical boards will have a huge role in working alongside the legal boards to consider assisted dying pleas on a case by case basis.