Christian De Duve won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1974 for his work in cell biology. He died on Saturday in his home in Belgium, in an act of euthanasia. He was 95.
Belgium is the second country after the Netherlands to give citizens the legal right to end their life with dignity. Choosing death is always a brave act. The writer Arthur Koestler ended his life in 1983 after he was diagnosed with terminal leukaemia.
Koestler once argued that he was more scared of the process of dying rather than death itself, which is perhaps why he wanted to end his life before he lost control over his existence, waiting helplessly for death in some hospital bed.
The Indian legal system has traditionally not been in favour of euthanasia, though the Supreme Court did allow passive euthanasia in its landmark judgement in the case of Aruna Shanbaug, the Mumbai nurse who has been in a vegetative state since she was brutally raped by a hospital employee in 1973. Passive euthanasia involves the withdrawal of medicines to a terminally-ill patient while active euthanasia is assisted death by a lethal injection.
In one of the clearest arguments in favour of voluntarily ending one’s life, V.D. Savarkar drew an important distinction between suicide and self-sacrifice. Savarkar argued that a frustrated human being ends his life with suicide. Self-sacrifice is different: it is the ending of life either after finishing one’s life mission or when the body has weakened. Suicide is a criminal activity while self-sacrifice is not. The life of a suicidal man may change for the better. There is no such hope for a vegetative body.
Savarkar wrote a famous Marathi essay on dying in 1964. Three years later, he gradually ended his life by giving up food and water, or prayopavesa. India has a rich tradition of voluntary death but the act is now mistakenly equated with the desperate step of suicide. The recent years have seen fresh thinking in society about issues such as homosexuality and live-in relationships. A similar rethink is needed as far as euthanasia goes.
To be sure, the ethical complexities are greater in the case of euthanasia but surely we need a more reasoned debate about its merits. The right to live with dignity should come with the right to a dignified death as well.
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