India’s Supreme Court allows ‘passive euthanasia’

Ruling says citizens can draft living will refusing treatment in case of coma or terminal illness.

Supreme Court - India
The court says individuals are only allowed to draft a living will while in 'normal state of health and mind' [AP]

India’s Supreme Court has issued a landmark ruling allowing “passive euthanasia”, declaring that individuals have the right to die with dignity under strict guidelines. 

In its decision on Friday, the country’s highest court permitted its citizens to draft a “living will” that specifies that life support not be given in the case of coma.

Passive euthanasia allows the withdrawal of medical treatment with the intention to hasten the death of a terminally-ill patient.

The five-member court, however, said that individuals are only allowed to draft a living will while he or she is in “normal state of health and mind”, the Hindustan Times reported.

The decision was in response to a petition by a non-government organisation, which argued that a person with terminal illness should be given the right to refuse being placed on life support.

“A person cannot be forced to live on support of ventilator. Keeping a patient alive by artificial means against his/her wishes is an assault on his/her body,” the petitioner Common Cause said.

‘Clear the confusion’ 

Prashant Bhushan, the lawyer representing Common Cause, said the ruling “will clear the confusion and avoid the sword that keeps hanging [over the head of] the doctors and family that if they want to withdraw life support they might be prosecuted for culpable homicide”.

He added: “If a person’s condition is incurable and if he is kept alive as a vegetable in great pain, why should he live like that?”  

Harmala Gupta, a cancer survivor and social activist who works for cancer support services, welcomed the ruling.

“This is indeed a landmark judgement as it allows those dying to leave with dignity as well as respects their wishes,” Gupta, founder of CanSupport, told Al Jazeera. 

“It will legalise what is already happening in India under the guise of “left against medical advice”.

Minakshi Biswas, research scholar and expert on euthanasia, said however that there are many factors to be considered before allowing passive euthanasia.

“Allowing passive euthanasia in developed countries is probably feasible, but welcoming even passive euthanasia in countries like India is very difficult,” Biswas, a humanities professor at GD Goenka University in New Delhi, told Al Jazeera.

She said India does not have even the basic healthcare services in place, and funds for health sector in the government budget is inadequate.

“That means many Indians who can’t afford healthcare will be pushed to opt for this choice,” she said.

“It’s a different issue for patients who are seriously ill. However even there, the caregiver is taking the decision. For instance an elderly couple in Mumbai wrote to the Indian president recently asking for permission for active euthanasia – the concern even in this case is – are they choosing this because they have no care system in place?”

With reporting from Zeenat Saberin in India

Source: Al Jazeera