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A right to dignified death

A right to dignified death
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First Published: Mon, Sep 08 2008. 10 45 PM IST
Updated: Tue, Sep 09 2008. 10 58 AM IST
Within a few weeks, Mumbai will play host to a symposium on the right to die with dignity. Among the speakers will be doctors, jurists and other opinion makers. And what will be debated is a question that Albert Camus— the famous French thinker—once described as the ultimate question: Is life worth living? Camus added the question was absurd, because if life were indeed worth living, one would not have asked the question. And if it were otherwise, one should not be alive to ask it.
In fact, most questions about the value of life begin to be asked only when life is in pain and jeopardy. It’s then, when stripped of the glory that life is meant to exude, people ask: Is this kind of life worth living?
In cultures of the Orient, inflicting death on oneself to escape dishonour is often considered a very noble act. Among the saints of the East, giving up desire for the world is the first step, giving up the “self” the next, and giving up life itself is the ultimate step. Some achieve this by denying the body food and water. Others by holding their breath till the spirit leaves the body.
That is why even the Law Commission in India recently recommended that euthanasia be legalized, subject to very strict conditions to prevent its misuse. The recommendation came on the heels of the Supreme Court itself admitting a petition requesting it to give the “Living Will” legal sanction. The petition seeks the court’s direction to declare as legal any will that a living, sane, person makes of free will in respect to the medical treatment he should receive, should he lose his cognitive capabilities, or should he become incapable of articulating his wishes to a doctor.
There are three reasons why the petition makes sense.
The first is the need to remedy a contradiction. As laws stand, no doctor can operate on an individual without his consent, or without the consent of his parent/guardian (if the patient is a minor). If I suffer from cancer, there is no law compelling me to undergo an operation if I do not wish it. Thus, logically, the law should allow me to withhold my consent in advance as well, for any situation in which my life is prolonged by medical means that I do not approve of.
The second is to clarify a legal grey area. What if a person meets with an accident and is admitted to the emergency ward of a hospital? Existing laws compel a doctor to keep a patient alive, as long as possible. If he does not, the doctor is culpable. Even the patient’s relatives cannot recommend the doctor that life-support systems be withdrawn, as the relatives, too, would then become abetters of a murder. Now, assume that the relatives inform the doctor that they cannot pay for the life-support systems and walk away. What does the doctor do then? Either way he is damned.
There is also the cultural issue. The courts will have to decide between an Eastern practice in religion and society, and a Judeo-Christian practice. The former believes that renunciation of life is perfectly justifiable. The latter denounces this as a human interference in God’s plan. The former believes that the individual decides everything, including life and death. The latter believes that a man’s life is not his own— it belongs to God, or his parents or even the state.
Undoubtedly, there are stories of miraculous turnarounds. But those are miracles, and should not be regarded as a norm. If a miracle were to happen, even corpses could sit up and begin life anew. Does that mean that we ban cremations and ask for preservation of the body like the pharoahs did?
The right to die is one way of coping with the predictable, without clinging to the straw that a miracle might still happen.
R.N. Bhaskar is chairman of E-Convergence Technologies Ltd. Comment at otherviews@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Sep 08 2008. 10 45 PM IST