The Supreme Court judgment allowing the execution of a living will in the event of a person not remaining in control of his or her body is momentous. The term refers to “a written statement detailing a person’s desire regarding his/her future medical treatment in circumstances in which they are no longer able to express informed consent, especially an advance directive”. This step falling short of sanctioning euthanasia is still a progressive one, given that many countries of the first world where the issue has been debated across societies, legislatures and judiciaries at length remain cagey about a sort of a suicide that carries an ample scope for foul play. Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, South Korea, Switzerland, Sweden and Uruguay are examples few and far between. Those who disagree with the apex court should be assured first by the definition. The will is supposed to be written in a state where the subject is physically capable, not once he/she has degenerated into the vegetative state. Second, the kin and friends cannot turn mischievous, emboldened by the document. A medical authority must approve of the proposition of withdrawing the patient’s life-support system. With due deliberations upon all possibilities, while the judges of the bench headed by the Chief Justice differed on the reading of foreseeable circumstances, they all agreed that forcing a person to live for the sake of it even in a comatose state was a terrible idea. The images of Aruna Shanbaug, raped and reduced to immobility in her youth, but made to live till she turned old, continue to haunt the collective memory of Indian society. Yet, the country proceeded with caution. After the failure of the Medical Treatment of Terminally Ill Patient (Protection of Patients and Medical Practitioners) Bill, 2006, to turn into a law, the authority let the named victim end her agony in 2011. Five years later, the Law Commission stated in its 241st report that passive euthanasia should be allowed with certain safeguards. “Safeguards” happen to be the concern of all right-thinking people, the top judges included.
The argument that a law to accept the do-not-resuscitate will should be put in place despite the apprehension of its misuse and abuse is valid. For, there can be no law that is manipulation-free. Having seen many a case of a lump of flesh in the pity of doctors and nurses, the medical fraternity has heaved a sigh of relief. The guidelines for passive euthanasia will now hold the key to sanity. With the passage of time, these might be subjected to revision in the eventuality of emerging predicaments. The apex court has called for legislation to this effect, which means that parliamentarians cannot shy away from their duty. The judiciary is there to interpret the law — not to make it — and see to it that the code is observed in letter and spirit. Since the verdict is a far cry from active euthanasia — where the subject is poisoned to death — a situation where no living will has been left by the patient before turning incapable of expressing his or her wish remains tricky. There, the status quo would continue.
The religious-philosophical question as to whether the right to live does not include the right to die is unanswered. Of course, no religion permits indiscriminate ending of one’s life. Various forms of Samadhi are, however, permitted. India has seen police spring into action in such cases not on a suo motu basis. Law enforcement agencies act on complaints because there is often an organisation the person leaves behind where a power struggle ensues, where one of the players in the tussle might have the motive to kill the ‘saint’ (with or without his wish). In the case of Balak Brahmachari of Bengal, the State government could not let a bunch of loonies to believe that their guru could never die and create a civic nuisance. In the case of Ashutosh Maharaj in Punjab, a man emerged out of thin air to claim he was the son of the preacher; the court dismissed the plea. It was nonetheless a case of state intervention in a matter of faith, which the judge ruled was as much against the tenet of secularism as the state being led by religious beliefs would be. Among the religions, Christianity alone does not forbid suicide. Judaism and Islam speak strongly against it. Hinduism and Jainism permit fasting to death but no other means of ending one’s life. The Buddhist intervention is fuzzy. Ensuring that there is no murder, the state may consider staying away from Prayopavesha and Sallekhana. Even the constraint in the advocacy of freedom — that ‘my freedom ends where yours begins’ — is respected in these rare Hindu and Jain practices.