Euthanasia in India: Which side are you on?

Euthanasia is defined as the painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and painful disease or in an irreversible coma.

This is a sensitive issue as this involves debate on ethics and morality. It’s important for us to understand the implications of euthanasia and for society to take a stand on it. In India, as in the rest of the world, the debate is still open.

‘Right to life’ vs ‘Right to choose’

The debate between ‘Right to Life’ vs ‘Right to Choose’ has polarized society into taking two divergent stands. Time for you to understand both issues before you take a stand on either side.

The ‘Right to Life’ is an issue that has its genesis in the abortion debate that started mainly in the Christian developed world. In Christianity, taking life of an unborn child is viewed as sin. The viewpoint here is that the moment a child is conceived, it is a living being, even if it’s in the mother’s womb and no one has the right to take that life, not even the mother.

Contrarian to this viewpoint, activists in support of abortion say, that the mother has the ‘right to choose’ on whether she wants to have a child or not and therefore, it’s her and only her decision. This debate has over time shifted across religions and national boundaries.

Let’s examine both viewpoints. The ‘right to life’ side has a strong point when they say that once conceived, a baby is a living being in the mother’s womb. This is true. The baby has the right to life. Since the baby can’t decide for itself, it needs the mother to allow the baby to live. Isn’t’ this the case once the child is born? It’s the mother that decides to take care of the child and ensures the baby lives on. So why wouldn’t the mother allow the baby to live? Good question.

The problem arises when the baby is unwanted or unplanned, at a time when the mother is not prepared to have a child or is unable to raise the child. What happens in this scenario? Surely, no other person has the right to decide whether the mother should or should not have the child. So we go back to the question on who decides. Is it the mother or is it the child in the mother’s womb, who totally depends on his mother to decide and allow the child a chance to live? The argument here seems to be in favour of the unborn child who must get his chance to live, as that’s nature’s way.

But what happens in case a woman is raped? She conceives and now she feels nothing but compete hatred for the life growing within her. A life from a person she probably does not even know, so how can she be expected to feel love and take care of a child that is going to be a living reminder of the most horrific moment of her life? Is it fair for society to expect her to feel love and allow the child to live? Isn’t it her ‘right to choose’?

Aruna Shanbaug case

Let’s move on to another area where the issue of euthanasia is alive and debated. Imagine a patient who is involved in a serious accident. He is now in a vegetative state and in coma. The doctors are keeping him alive using a ventilator and is on a liquid diet fed through tubes. He has no chance of recovery and is completely at the mercy of the doctors to continue stay ‘alive’. The same is true of terminally ill patients who are in coma due to some illness.

Take the case of Aruna Shanbaug. In 1973, she was working as a nurse in Mumbai’s KEM hospital. One day she was attacked by a sweeper in the same hospital, who strangled and sodomized her. He used a chain to strangle her that resulted in oxygen deprivation to her brain, leading to a coma. Till date she lies in coma. The staff at KEM have kept her alive all these years.

However, this gave rise to the debate whether Aruna should be kept alive or should she be allowed to die. The question is who is to decide? Aruna has a fundamental right to live but she cannot decide for herself whether to live or to give up on life. So who does? Another question arises. Were Aruna to be conscious, would she like to live this life? Doesn’t ‘quality of life’ also matter? To stay alive in ‘medical’ sense vs staying alive in the ‘social’ sense, that’s the debate. Aruna too has the right to live a happy and healthy life but since these were denied completely, would she want to continue living on life support? What purpose does that serve? Either for her or for her near and dear ones?

Legal viewpoint

The debate was taken forward to the Supreme Court and in 2011, the court rejected the plea to discontinue Aruna’s life support, taking into account KEM Hospital’s decision to continue supporting her but issued a set of broad guidelines legalizing ‘passive euthanasia’ in India. Passive euthanasia involves the withdrawing of treatment or food that would allow the patient to live. The court rejected ‘active euthanasia’ that involves injecting the patient with lethal compounds to end the person’s life and has left it to the parliament to debate and decide laws on this sensitive issue. Some countries like Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands and some states in the US, allow ‘active euthanasia’. In early 80s, a movie called ‘Whose life is it anyways’ took up this issue.

So here we have a situation where the debate on ‘right to life’ vs ‘right to choose’ again comes up. Every person has the right to live but also has the right to live a ‘qualitative’ life, even if the word ‘qualitative’ is subjective. If the quality of life is denied to the person, and if he is unable to decide for himself whether to continue to live on life support or to give up on life, then it must be left to the family and the doctors to take a call on withdrawal of life support. Here the ‘right to choose’ life or not, must be taken by the family, as they are involved with the process, the medical cost and the emotional cost of keeping the person alive.

Holding a viewpoint on this contentious issue is not easy but it is essential for you to debate within yourself on which side of the debate you are on. Your view counts!