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SC upholds right to die with dignity: Living will, passive euthanasia allowed

10 March 2018

A five-judge Constitution bench, led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, has now given its nod to passive euthanasia legal by recognising the "living will", but with some riders.

The court's ruling was pronounced on a 2005 plea filed by Prashant Bhushan on behalf of NGO Common Cause that sought recognition of a living will so that an individual could exercise the right to refuse medical treatment at a terminally-ill stage of life.

In the case of Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug vs Union Of India & Ors (March 7, 2011), the Supreme Court had distinguished between "active" and "passive" euthanasia.

Either the patient can draft a living will, stating his life should not be prolonged by putting on a ventilator, once he slips into an incurable coma, or the close relatives can get approval for a passive euthanasia, that is withdrawing life-saving devices or medicines.

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"A awful, painful death on a rational but incapacitated terminally ill patient are an affront to human dignity".

Minakshi Biswas, research scholar and expert on euthanasia, said however that there are many factors to be considered before allowing passive euthanasia. The case sparked a national debate on legalizing euthanasia.

If the collector's board refuses permission, the family or friends can move the high court which will examine the case with the help of an independent medical board before taking a call.

The debate on euthanasia in India was triggered after the case of Aruna Shanbaug, a Mumbai nurse, who remained in a persistent vegetative state for almost 42 years following a sexual assault.

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Senior advocate Mahesh Jethmalani welcomed the Supreme Court decision on passive euthanasia stating that he believes any individual who is very ill and unable to take care of himself should be allowed to make a decision on his life. The apex court has also laid down the rules, explaining who should execute the will and how the request for euthanasia can be granted.

In active euthanasia, a person or medical professionals directly and deliberately do something for the death of the suffering patient.

The draft Bill provides protection to patients and medical practitioners (from liability) for withdrawing medical treatment of terminally ill patients. The court has suggested several conditions, including a District Magistrate-appointed medical board to vet the decision of the hospital medical board that life support systems merely prolong a vegetative or painful existence without any hope of redemption.

The Constitution Bench has issued safety guidelines on passive euthanasia.

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SC upholds right to die with dignity: Living will, passive euthanasia allowed