Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Activist Pinki Virani objects to age clause in euthanasia bill

Pinki Virani has also proposed that the law, if passed, be named The Aruna Act after Aruna Shanbaug

Experts have started to respond to the draft bill on passive euthanasia, placed in the public domain last week by the health ministry.

One of the first to respond was Pinki Virani, the author of Aruna’s Story, a 1998 book about Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug, whose life story stirred the debate around euthanasia in India and is seen as the inspiration behind the bill.

Virani has questioned an age-related clause in the draft bill, which distinguishes between a minor and an adult patient.

According to the proposed law, patients who are 16 years of age or above, can decide whether to continue their treatment or stop it. It is applicable in cases of terminally ill patients where it is clear that their medical condition will not be reversed and they can survive only if supported by life-saving machines and medicines.

“It involves withholding of medical treatment or withholding life-support system for continuance of life, e.g. withholding of antibiotic without which the patient will die or removing the heart-lung machine from a patient in coma," read an explanatory note issued by the ministry.

“Putting the clause regarding age is a drastic move. The issue of euthanasia cannot involve issues like consent by a minor, applicable in other laws," said Virani, who moved the Supreme Court in 2009 pleading for euthanasia for Shanbaug, a Mumbai nurse who died last year after spending 42 years in a vegetative state after a violent sexual attack.

Virani said that the demand for euthanasia might begin with the patient, in case they are in a condition to communicate, and then involve friends, family and the treating doctor who determines the patient’s medical condition.

“By putting the age clause, the government implies that 16-year and older children who are on the death-bed and want to end their life can take parents to court as they will never agree to their children dying," said Virani.

The bill in its current form could lead to family feuds, she added.

In her response to health minister J.P. Nadda, Virani has proposed that the law, if passed, be named The Aruna Act after Shanbaug.

Her letter also suggested that a clause prohibiting foreigners from availing of euthanasia in India should be included. “The Passive Euthanasia Law can only be practised upon patients permanently residing in India. We cannot allow ourselves to be treated like a euthanasia-destination, the way we have been for surrogacy," said Virani.

The bill is a response to a proposal made by the 241st Report of the Law Commission. A draft bill was first prepared in 2006 but after consulting with experts, the government decided not to go ahead with it. Subsequently, in March 2011, the Supreme Court in its judgement in Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug vs Union of India and others, laid down comprehensive guidelines for the process of passive euthanasia and stated that the guidelines are to be followed in India until Parliament drafts a bill on it.

Passive euthanasia refers to withdrawal of medical support, while active euthanasia refers to something being done to end a patient’s life. The bill only deals with passive euthanasia.