Death with dignity

Author Published: 12th Mar 2018   12:00 am Updated: 11th Mar 2018   6:07 pm

The right to death with dignity is no less important than the right to live. The recognition of an individual’s right to exercise bodily autonomy is a sign of maturity in any evolved society. By upholding this right and allowing passive euthanasia and “living will”, the Supreme Court has cleared the air on a sensitive issue that involves a complex set of moral, legal and social implications and evokes mixed feelings among people. The court’s landmark verdict comes as a huge relief for those who want to exit this world with dignity instead of prolonging the suffering by extending the life support system in an incurable vegetative condition. The five-member Constitution Bench, headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, made it clear that the right to a dignified life extends up to the point of having a dignified death. While seeking to find a balance in the relationship between life, death and morality, the court rightly pointed out that burdening a dying patient with life-prolonging treatment would be destructive of his or her dignity and in such a situation individual interest has to be given priority over the State interest. Giving a legal nod to “living will” is truly progressive, given the Indian sensibilities concerning life and death. Living will empowers individuals of sound mind and health to leave explicit instructions in advance about the medical treatment to be administered when they become terminally ill and can declare in advance that their life must not be prolonged if they slide into a vegetative state. They can authorise any relative or friend to decide, in consultation with medical experts, when to pull the plug.

There might be genuine apprehensions that living will can be misused, making the elderly vulnerable to the devious plans of their greedy relatives eyeing for properties. The court has effectively addressed these fears by putting in place robust set of safeguards by involving multiple medical boards comprising several experts and judicial officers to prevent the misuse. The court also wanted a medical board to determine whether the patient in a vegetative state could be revived or not. And, the relatives of a patient who has not written a living will can now approach high courts asking for passive euthanasia. The important fallout of having the system of living will is that it would free the family members and doctors of the moral dilemma on how long to continue the life support system in clinically irretrievable cases. The possibility of a small section of people misusing certain provisions of a law should not be a valid ground for rejecting the idea altogether. The right to die with dignity is an intrinsic facet of right to life guaranteed under Article 21.