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 Assisted Suicide : Verdict on Passive Euthanasia

                                      Dr Ratan Bhattacharjee              

Euthanasia or physician assisted suicide is not a new demand. People across the world suffer from terminal illness. A fourteen year girl Valentina  Maureira was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a baby  and this Chilean girl appealed to President Michelle Bachelet  for permission to end her life. The video of her suffering was posted on YouTube and it went viral in 2015. Valentina’s request was not granted because of the stringent government laws for preventing assisted suicide. President Bachelet being a pediatrician visited Valentina who weighed 77 pounds and had to rely on breathing machines  and was fed through a tube. Maynard, another woman suffering from brain cancer stage 4 of Glioblastoma wanted to end her own life under Oregon’s ‘Death with Dignity Law’ of 1994, died at the age of 29  in her home from a lethal dose of barbiturates . Her husband Dan Diaz drew national attention on the need for euthanasia for such serious patients.

In John Zaritsky’s 2007 documentary , The Suicide  Tourist ,George and Betty of Canada sought to become the first couple who  wanted to commit assisted  suicide simultaneously with the approval of the government of Switzerland  after completing fifty years of conjugal life . However in a weird turn of events  Betty Columbias developed  cancer  and died and was survived by her husband. Ludwig Minelli director of the Swiss Assisted Suicide group Dignitas also advocated in their favour to issue lethal drugs to healthy people. But the request for assisted suicide was turned down. Another case was that of Marc and Eddy Verbessem who were born deaf were killed by Belgian doctors after seeking euthanasia.

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. One murderer and rapist was granted right to euthanasia rather than the unbearable suffering of life in prison. This happened to Frank Van Den Bleeken a fifty year old prisoner in Belgium in January 2015. Euthanasia was carried out by doctors as it was legal in three European countries like the Netherlands ,Belgium and Luxembourg. French teacher Chantal Sebire the woman with the large face tumour ended her life with illegal euthanasia drugs. France was one of the first countries to legalise  suicide in 1790. Sebire committed suicide by taking Pentobarbital which was not available in France but used elsewhere for the purpose of physician assisted suicide.                                                                                                

India now suddenly wakes up from its dormant condition on the issue of euthanasia. On March 11, 2011 the Apex Court was approached for legalising passive euthanasia allowing patients to have physician assisted suicide. The plea for dying with dignity in the vegetative state sparked off a heated debate on  euthanasia in India that  started with Aruna Shanbaug who was a nurse working in King Edward Memorial Hospital ,Parel ,Mumbai. On November 27 1973 she was brutally raped at the age of 23 by Sohanlal Walmiki a sweeper. She was left in a vegetative state and on behalf of Aruna, her friend Pinki Virani a social activist filed a petition arguing that the continued existence of Aruna is in violation of her right to live in dignity. She had serious brain damage and suffered paralysis  and yet the Supreme Court rejected the plea for removing life support . She finally died after being in a coma for 42 years. In February 2014 a three member bench had referred the case to a five-judge bench. On December 23, 2014 the Government of India endorsed and re-validated passive euthanasia while the plea for mercy killing on behalf of Aruna Shaunbag was dismissed. Active euthanasia which includes administration of lethal compounds for the purpose of ending life is still illegal in India and in most countries.

Finally, India’s Supreme Court ruled on March 8 2018 that life support can be removed for some terminally ill patients, allowing what is called “passive euthanasia.” No law was passed for euthanasia by the government in this regard and the Supreme Court’s guidelines for passive euthanasia are  the only provisions of law. Now there is a huge concern about the possible misuse of even passive euthanasia.

‘The debate on euthanasia began in the United States of America in the Gilded Age when Henry Hunt’s mother needed death as  a relief from unbearable pain. She was suffering from terminal cancer. In such a situation it was pointless to force her to bear the pain and make her live through artificial breathing or ventilation. Chronic illness robbed her of the joy of life. She wanted a relief. But she was not allowed the right to die. It was an extended battle and her son Henry Hunt finally introduced legislation in the General Assembly of Ohio in 1906. The debate over euthanasia began in the United States. Robert Ingersoll also argued in favour of euthanasia in 1894. This was an argument of in favour of voluntary administration of euthanasia of adults suffering from terminal ailments. The campaign grew stronger after two women Lurana Sheldon and Maud Ballington Booth campaigned for euthanasia.  In 1906 Ross Gregory introduced a proposal to permit euthanasia to the Iowa legislature. It allowed for the death of any person of at least ten years of age who suffered from a fatal ailment causing extreme pain. Even infants too can be euthanised if they were sufficiently deformed and their guardians request euthanasia on behalf of such children .After 1906 the debate reached the United Kingdom and other European countries where active or passive euthanasia is fully illegal.

Euthanasia which in Greek means ‘Good or painless death’ is the practice of intentionally ending a life to relieve pain and suffering. Different countries have different euthanasia laws In India the euthanasia controversy was very dominant. In Greece as in Hitler’s Germany , the old and the infirm were considered a burden on society. So a lethal dose of poison was administered to effect a quick and painless death. With the advancement of civilisation and preponderance of religious and social taboos, euthanasia gradually faded out of existence. In Indian concept there is the myth of ‘icchamrityu’ or ‘willingness for death’ as in the Mahabharata the great grandfather Bhisma died that way. Many saints and sadhus die in Samadhi just because they willed to do so through yogasana.

A New Delhi advocate S Kumar formed a society called Indian Society for the Right to Die ‘ with a group of doctors, lawyers , educationists, MP.s  and civil servants who agreed that ‘futile prolongation of dying’ cannot be allowed. In George Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant such a decision of killing was taken by the English police officer when the wounded elephant was gasping for breath and suffered from a terrible pain. But what is so easy in the case of an animal, is not so simple in the case of a human being, especially if the person involved is the breadwinner of a family, It involves complex issues such as divisions of property, and inheritance. This is where doctors and social activists warn that euthanasia might be misused by family members.        

(The author is Associate Professor and Head of Post Graduate Dept of English , Dum Dum Motijheel College, Kolkata. Email: [email protected])


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