Life and death, the two most important issues of our existence on earth has been a complex topic of debate and research for medical scientists, spiritualists, philosophers, astrologers everyone. Like death sentence, euthanasia too is a highly debatable issue, as every religion in the world believes killing someone as ‘a sin’. As humans, it is our duty to protect and preserve life. Birth is not our choice, but the preservation of life and to some extent death is in our hands. Emotionally weak people commit suicide when life becomes unbearable (by their standard). Such people can be treated psychologically with love, care and understanding. Even convicts can be treated and rehabilitated.
Death as end of suffering or punishment is not the right solution for such cases. But what about the people who are suffering due to terminal illness with unbearable suffering and no hopes of recovering? It is ethically a difficult question! Such situation is difficult not just for the patient, but for the caregivers too who find it hard to see the pains of their loved ones. Some accept it, while some ponder on options like mercy killing, which is called ‘euthanasia’ in medical terms.
Meaning of Euthanasia
The dictionary meaning of ‘euthanasia’ is- ‘putting to death in a gentle, painless way to relieve suffering. There are two types of euthanasia- active and passive. Passive euthanasia is withdrawal of life-sustaining drugs and/or life-support systems, in case a person is being kept alive only mechanically and he/she has been in that condition for some years, without any plausible possibility of recovery. Active euthanasia involves injecting a lethal drug to induce such a patient’s death.
Ethics of Euthanasia
Religious people, the patient herself/himself, generally accept suffering as destiny. Same is with the relatives or caregivers who consider taking care of the patient till natural death, as best as they can, as their duty. This is particularly so among Indians who believe in ‘Karma’. We may silently pray for early death, but assisted death remains out of question. But exceptions are always there as sometimes the situation is too painful and difficult even for loving, patient, religious minded people, who may then consider euthanasia to end suffering.
Passive euthanasia has in fact always been practiced by doctors. So often we come across cases where patients with multi organ failure or advanced disease where no more medical treatment is possible or available for any chances of recovery, are just advised to take certain simple medicines to reduce pain. Sometimes doctors give the option to keep the patient in the hospital itself, till death, under the care of trained nurses or take the patient home and provide the basic medical and simply wait for natural death. Sometimes patients do recover with care and their own strong will to live, even after doctors loose all hope. Such is life! Such miracles do occur, and therefore, legal decision on euthanasia is always tricky.
The decision cannot be left to the patient, because psychologically and emotionally she/he is so disturbed and exhausted by the suffering, that her/his desire cannot be depended on fully. There have been cases where patients have tried to commit suicide to end their suffering, but have been treated and recovered of their disease later. So for the patient it may be an impulsive decision at that time.
Legalizing Euthanasia is also dangerous because there are high chances of it being misused. Greedy relatives who have an eye for the property for the patient or out of some enmity may pressurize the doctors for euthanasia. Sometimes people just do not have enough money to bear the medical expenses and sometimes terminally ill patients are simply abandoned. Do such unfortunate people deserve death or loving care? Obviously the second option is more human!
Supreme Court ruling on Euthanasia in India
Passive euthanasia was made legal in India by a Supreme Court judgment on 7th March 2011. Active euthanasia remains a crime under law.
The judgment came in the wake of the Aruna Shaunbag case. It was a very balanced judgment by the SC as it rejected Aruna’s friend’s appeal requesting euthanasia for Aruna who has been in a vegetative state for the last 38 years. Though in a vegetative state, Aruna still expresses emotions of anger, likes and dislikes. Besides, the nurses who have been taking impeccable care of Aruna and who are very fond of her, never ever consider her as a burden on them. Hence the commendable decision of rejecting euthanasia for Aruna. It’s a judgment which should be a benchmark for the world.
The Supreme Court of India has allowed passive euthanasia for patients who are brain dead or in a permanent vegetative state, and whom doctors have lost hope of reviving even with the most advanced medical aid. But even passive euthanasia, though made legal, cannot be the decision of only the patient, relatives and the doctor concerned. The SC specifies that only a high court bench of at least two judges can give the final go ahead for passive euthanasia after bonafide consent from the patient’s relatives and the opinion of an expert panel of reputed doctors comprising a neurologist, a psychiatrist and a physician.
The judgment is certainly praiseworthy, but lets never lose hope on life, on medical science, our own will power and the miracles of divine intervention!!