Court: Supreme Court of India
Thesis statement: The object of the case is to decide whether the right to life, as guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution of India, extends its ambit to ‘right to die’. It determines the legality of passive euthanasia in India.
Citation: (2011) 4 SCC 454
Date: 7 March, 2011
Judges: Markandey Katju, Gyan Sudha Misra
Parties: Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug (Petitioner) vs. Union of India and others (Respondents)
From the dawn of human life, man is clothed with Fundamental Rights. One of the most important rights, as enshrined in the Constitution of India, 1950, includes right to life. The present case decides whether the right to life includes ‘right to die’ or not.
The term ‘euthanasia’ is derived from two Greek words: ‘eu’ means ‘good’ and ‘thantos’ means ‘death’. Thus, euthanasia means peaceful and voluntary ending of life of an individual suffering from a terminal illness and an incurable condition. Passive euthanasia means a condition where the life of an individual is ended by intentionally not providing essential medical treatment or food and water or withdrawing an artificial life support system. With the increasing emphasis on informed consent of the patients in the medical field, the discussion about euthanasia has become all the more pertinent.
Aruna Shanbaug was a junior nurse working at King Edward Memorial Hospital, Parel, Mumbai. On the night of 27 November, she was attacked by a ward boy named Sohanlal Bhartha Walmiki while she was changing clothes in the basement. He tried to sexually assault her, but on finding her menstruating, sodomized her. He choked her with a dog chain which cut the oxygen supply to her brain, resulting in a brain stem contusion, cervical cord injury, and cortical blindness. She was discovered unconscious the next morning by a cleaner.
Thirty-six years have passed since the said incident. She was admitted to the KEM hospital, Mumbai. She had been surviving on mashed foods and could not move her body. In fact, she was in a permanent vegetative state (PVS) since then. So a petition was filed by Ms. Pinki Virani, claiming to be the ‘next friend’ of the petitioner. The plea was that, she should be stopped feeding and left to die in peace. Finally, she died out of pneumonia in 2015.
- Should euthanasia be permissible in India? If yes, then in what form? In passive euthanasia, artificial life-supporting systems are discontinued and the patient suffering from an incurable state is left to die in peace. So, should that be permissible for PVS patients?
- If a patient is in PVS for a long time and he/she does not want to have life-sustaining measures as it would be a futile effort, should his/her wishes be respected in that situation?
- If the patient himself/ herself has not previously made a request for discontinuing life-supporting measures or is in not a state to give such decisions, can the family members make such requests?
LAWS INVOLVED IN THIS CASE
- Article 21 of the Constitution of India, 1949 – this article deals with the right to life and personal liberty which covers a wide ambit of other rights like the right to food, clean water, dignity, sleep, right against exploitation, etc. the question of the case is that, whether the right to life includes ‘right to die’ or not.
- Article 32 of the Constitution of India, 1949- this article gives the right to constitutional remedies. It gives the right to the citizens to move to the Supreme Court if any of their rights are infringed (here, article 21). Also, the Court can issue writs of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, quo warranto, and certiorari for enforcement of such rights.
Article 226 of the Constitution of India, 1949- this article gives the right to the High Courts to issue writs. We shall see later in the judgment of this case that the High Courts have to issue certain guidelines relating to the permissibility of passive euthanasia in certain cases.
- Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860- this section gives punishment to any person who attempts to commit suicide. Thus, it is implied from this provision that a person cannot be allowed to willingly take away his own life.
- Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860- this section gives punishment to any person who abets another person for the commission of suicide. So in this case, any person who helps the patient in euthanasia may also be held guilty by the court.
The Honorable Bench of Judges at the Supreme Court gave judgment on this case on 7th March, 2011. The judgment was given based on the reports of the doctor’s panel appointed by the court to investigate Aruna’s condition. They gave their report that she was not brain dead and could respond to certain stimuli and had certain feelings. She was in PVS state but she was stable. She did not need an artificial mechanism for breathing and the only way to end her life was to stop feeding her. This could not be done under any circumstances as it would not be justified under any Indian Law. Also, it could be said from her gestures that she wanted to end her life. The staffs of the KEM hospital were very willing to take care of her. Thus, terminating her life on the said grounds would be unjustifiable.
The Court also held that such a plea could be made by any relative or kin of the petitioner and Ms. Pinki Virani was not allowed to make such appeal. In absence of any kin, the staffs of KEM hospital can file such a petition.
The Court ruled that passive euthanasia could be granted in certain conditions but in the present case, it was refused to Aruna. It was held that, if any such other cases arise in the future, the power to determine the termination of the person’s life would be subjected to the approval of the High Court following a due procedure.
Whenever any petition is filed for passive euthanasia, the Chief Justice of the High Court should appoint a Bench of at least 2 Judges who shall act on the advice of at least 3 reputed doctors appointed by the Court. It is also the duty of the Court to issue a notice to the State, relatives, kin, and friends and provide a copy of the recommendations of the doctors. After hearing all the sides, the Court shall pass its judgment accordingly.
In the present case, along with refusing euthanasia to Aruna, the Court also held that the staffs of the KEM hospital can file a petition in the future if such a need arises. The court also recommended the repealing of section 309 of IPC.
EVALUATION OF THE CASE
For the evaluation of the case, we must know what euthanasia is. As previously discussed, passive euthanasia means, to stop providing the artificial facilities that enable the person to live. It can be further categorized into three types- voluntary, non- voluntary, and involuntary. Voluntary euthanasia means killing of a person when he has asked to be killed. In case of non- voluntary euthanasia, the person who was killed made no request for it and he is unable to communicate his wishes as he is in coma or such other state. In case of involuntary euthanasia, the person who is killed has expressed his wishes to the contrary.
There were previous judgments on this as well. In the case of State of Maharashtra vs. Maruti Shripati Dubal, the Bombay High Court held that the right to life includes ‘right to die’ and section 309 of IPC is unconstitutional. In the case of P. Rathinam vs. Union of India, the Court held that the scope of Article 21 includes ‘right to die’ it states that Article 21 is not merely negative in its approach but positive too. In the case of Gian Kaur vs. State of Punjab, the Court overruled the judgment of P. Rathinam and distinguished between ‘right to die’ and ‘right not to live’. It held that right to live with dignity, as enshrined by Article 21, should also include death with dignity and put a question on the constitutionality of section 306 of IPC.
As a student of law, I feel that the case is of high controversy. On humane grounds, a terminally ill person must be left to die in peace when it is almost sure that he cannot lead a normal life. However, putting a cumbersome procedure for euthanasia slows down the process and demolishes the spirit of such an act. Also, if it becomes too easy, then there opens a vivid ground for its misuse. Thus, a middle path should be followed if it is to be used wisely.
Thus, we see that it is a landmark case to check on the legality of euthanasia in India. It can be the last resort of giving an end to a lifelong misery. However, if not used wisely, it can be a weapon of constitutional murder.
S. K. Acharya Institute of Law, kalyani