Photo: Rajkumar/Mint
Photo: Rajkumar/Mint

Considering Law Commission report on passive euthanasia: Government tells Supreme Court

The government will also file an affidavit on its stand on Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes attempt to commit suicide

New Delhi: The government on Friday told the Supreme Court that it was considering a Law Commission report which supported passive euthanasia—withdrawing life support based from a terminally-ill patient.

In its 241st Report, the Law Commission under the chairmanship of P.V. Reddi had said that withdrawing life support for certain categories of people—such as those in persistent vegetative state (PVS) or in irreversible coma or of unsound mind, who lack mental faculties to make decisions for themselves—should be allowed.

The Law Commission report followed a March 2011 decision by the Supreme Court which differentiated between active and passive euthanasia in the case of a nurse, Aruna Shanbaug. Shanbaug was in PVS for several decades following a brutal rape. She died on 18 May 2015.

The government’s response came in a case related to considering the right to life comprising the right to die with dignity. The case is being heard by a constitution bench comprising justices Anil R. Dave, Kurian Joseph, S.K. Singh, A.K. Goel and Rohinton F. Nariman.

The government also said that a bill based on the report, the Medical Treatment of Terminally-ill Patients (Protection of Patients and Medical Practitioners) Bill, was also pending consideration.

The government will furnish an affidavit to the effect before the next date of hearing, 1 February. The affidavit will also include the government’s stand on Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes attempt to commit suicide. He told the court that in December 2014, the government had decided to remove attempt to suicide as a criminal offence. He said that the decision had been sent to state governments for ratification.

Non-profit Common Cause, which had petitioned the court seeking to include the right to die with dignity as a part of right to life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Lawyer Prashant Bhushan, representing Common Cause, told the court that a living will, a declaration from a terminally-ill person, should be made a legal document.

Additional solicitor general P.S. Patwalia also told the court that there was a regulation which prescribed a similar process for withdrawing life support. He drew the court’s attention to Regulation 6.7 of the Indian Medical Council (Professional Conduct, Etiquette and Ethics) Regulations, 2002, which said that “the question of withdrawing supporting devices to sustain cardio-pulmonary function even after brain death" would be decided by a team of three doctors. Euthanasia, as such, is considered an unethical conduct.

The court enquired whether removal of the words “brain death" would affect the meaning of passive euthanasia. It was Bhushan’s contention that a person who has not suffered brain death should have the right to refuse life support, based on his or her living will.

The court also noted that continued life support was torture for the family as it an extensive medical treatment.

Passive euthanasia entails a patient being allowed to die by limiting medical intervention, not escalating already aggressive treatment, withholding or withdrawing artificial life support in cases that are judged to be medically futile.

Active euthanasia involves administering lethal substances to end life.