The right to dignified death

The right to dignified death

In November 1973, a 25-year-old nurse was strangulated and raped. Aruna Shanbaug has since then lived a vegetative life on a bed at the King Edward Memorial hospital in Mumbai, where she once worked. Her plea for mercy killing has reached the Supreme Court.

The case is a complex one, with one side arguing that nearly four decades of life in a hospital bed is no life at all while the other side pointing out that the nurse is not in a position to decide for herself whether to live or die. The possibility that future mercy killing petitions can be misused during family disputes to finish off bed-ridden elders cannot be ignored either. The government has argued against assisted death in contrast to the recommendation of the Law Commission to allow terminally ill people to choose to die with dignity.

India does not have a law on euthanasia or the right to die. The case of Aruna is one of what is called non-voluntary euthanasia, since she is not in a position to choose. The legal and ethical arguments against her plea focus on this aspect of the case and the possibility of misuse later on. This newspaper believes that the right to a dignified death should be part of a liberal society just as a right of a dignified life is. Subject to adequate legal checks, India needs to give legal sanctity to some types of euthanasia and not equate them with either suicide or homicide.

One of the clearest cases in support of ending one’s life when the body is weak was provided by V.D. Savarkar in a Marathi essay written in 1964. Savarkar drew an important distinction between suicide and self-sacrifice. Suicide is the ending of one’s life because of frustration. Self-sacrifice is the ending of one’s life either after finishing one’s life mission or when the body has weakened. One is a criminal activity while the other is not. The life of a suicidal man may change for the better. There is no such hope for a vegetative body.

Savarkar supported his case with several examples from Indian history. Ever the rationalist, he gradually killed himself in 1967 by giving up food and water, or prayopaveshan. The Aruna Shanbaug case is a different one, with more complexities and is being argued in another age. But it should lead to an honest debate on the virtues of a good death, which is the original Greek meaning of the word euthanasia. We have decriminalized homosexuality and it’s time to move ahead and legalize some forms of euthanasia.

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