The right to live and let die

The right to live and let die

The right to life is central to not just India’s Constitution, as per Article 21, but also the world’s religions. Lawyers and priests, activists and moralists, all have variously accepted and interpreted this right. But, curiously, few of them speak of what should accompany this right — the right to die.

It is in this light that the Supreme Court’s decision last week to admit a plea on the right to end life is significant. The case involves Aruna Shanbaug, a 61-year-old who has been lying in a vegetative state for 36 years in a Mumbai hospital — lawyers are using the same Article 21 to argue that Shanbaug deserves a life with dignity, one that doesn’t need artificial support. Considering the apex court has so far sided against choosing death (in situations such as abortions), right-to-die activists are keeping their fingers crossed.

To a terminally ill patient, the right to death means the chance to die with dignity, instead of suffering with ignominy. We believe this right needs to be afforded to all Indians.

But it would be foolish of us to make this dichotomy sound too simple. Doctors have for decades grappled with trying to decide the justness of euthanasia, or mercy killing. Whether patients leave explicit advance directives that they wish to die in certain cases, or whether it falls to their relatives or doctors to do so, it is an agonizing decision.

What is perhaps a consolation is that the very availability of this right can help. Patients who are desperate to end their suffering may already be resorting to illegal means. Legalizing physician-assisted suicide brings grey areas into light, allowing lawyers or doctors to draw up rules—thereby making the process safer. The right rules can also ensure that euthanasia is employed in strict situations. What’s more, providing patients (or their proxies) with a legal option later can prevent rash decisions now: It allows them to wait until they have better information.

Opposing the progress of such individual rights, pro-life activists often raise the spectre of a slippery slope, claiming that legalizing euthanasia in the short run means denigrating society’s value of life in the long run. Yet, against the vagaries of such societal doomsdays—often made by those who insist they speak for society at large—are concrete cases of individual suffering. The problems faced by the likes of Aruna Shanbaug are urgently waiting to be addressed.

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