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One's right to die

The Indian government has readied the Passive Euthanasia Bill and that throws open the debate about acceptance of a ‘Living Bill’.

 Shutapa Paul |  2017-10-13 15:33:02.0

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Aruna Shanbaug's shrivelled, misshapen body curled up on the hospital bed has been one of the most unforgettable and heart-wrenching images in recent Indian history. Her case is well-known. Once a nurse in Mumbai's King Edward Memorial Hospital, Shanbaug was asphyxiated with a dog chain and sodomised by a ward boy, Sohanlal Bhartha Walmiki. This gruesome assault irrevocably changed Shanbaug's life forever. She was no more the lively nurse. Shanbaug's case also raked up the debate on euthanasia, the practice of methodically ending the life of a terminally and irreversibly ill person in order to alleviate their suffering. While the Supreme Court had approved passive euthanasia in Shanbaug's case, the KEM Hospital staff, more her family than anyone else, wanted to keep her alive. For 42 years, Shanbaug lived as a human vegetable before finally succumbing to pneumonia in 2015.

The Union government informed the Supreme Court this week that a draft legislation permitting passive euthanasia for terminally ill patients with no chance of recovery is in the works. The draft has been prepared in keeping with the apex court's ruling in the Shanbaug case. The Supreme Court has, however, reserved its verdict on allowing a 'Living Will' for passive euthanasia, but 'active euthanasia' akin to suicide has been struck down.
Euthanasia has been a subject of much debate all over the world as it throws up questions of law, ethics, and the freedom to die. These long-argued questions will continue to be discussed in the coming days with the government ready to table the Passive Euthanasia Bill. Interestingly, while the freedom to live is recognised, freedom to die is not. However, the courts say that we do have the right to die with dignity.
While we argue and counter-argue the various merits and demerits of such a move, the government must first and foremost keep the patients in mind. What kind of a life can it be where one cannot move or speak and remains paralysed or in a coma? What is the quality of the life of a terminally-ill patient who has scant chance of making recovery? What dignity is there in being completely dependent on others for your upkeep and not yourself? Such a life is not true living and those who wish to not continue with such an existence must be given the power to decide on their own life. We fight and acquire all kinds of freedoms that are necessary for individuals to live their life. But if that living itself is only through medical assistance; then is it truly worth it?
Safeguards are also of utmost importance in order to ensure that passive euthanasia, if brought into effect, is not misused by hospital administration, doctors, and patients' families. It is welcome, therefore, that a medical board take the final call on whether passive euthanasia could be administered if the patient's condition is irreversible. But to not recognise a 'Living Will', whereby an individual can plan well in advance the terms of his death, defeats the purpose.
As of June 2016, human euthanasia is permitted in the Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia, and Luxembourg. Assisted suicide is allowed in Switzerland, Germany, Japan, Canada, and in the American states of Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Vermont, Montana, Washington DC, and California.
I, for one, would want the freedom to decide my end. My mother tells me often that should she ever need life-support, I must pull the plug if recovery seems bleak. She genuinely fears and dislikes hospitals, and has told me for years that the thought of being a human vegetable with a ventilator keeping her alive worries her the most. I cannot fathom deciding on someone else's behalf; I cannot imagine playing God to another living being, but I do want to be able to take an informed decision on how I would like to leave the world of the living. So do my mother and hundreds of people like her. The Indian government must recognise this last freedom.
(The writer is a journalist and media entrepreneur. The views are strictly personal.)

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