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August - September 2005



by Dr. C P Dalvi

The classical unfortunate case of brave Venkatesh of Hyderabad, India has forced several forums to reconsider the ‘legality’ or otherwise of right to die. It is generally agreed that all human beings have a right to live with dignity. However, everyone knows that it is only in theory. Right to live with dignity includes right to good nutrition, good education, good medical care and a host of other essentials. Only a small minority in rich advanced countries are lucky to get these in acceptable quantum. Rest of the world gets hardly any of these minimum requirements for a life of dignity. The only thing that one could call his (which includes her) own, is his life. Everything else in life may be yours today but not tomorrow. Many ungodly elements snuff out innocent lives and that is termed terrorism. Rapidly increasing crime and accidents claim many more lives against the wishes of those who are killed. Criminals perpetuating these crimes most often go scot-free on account of shoddy investigations and loopholes in legal system. Most of those who are killed would have liked to live as long as possible even though their lives were markedly compromised and far from being called dignified living. Is it not strange that you have no control on your life as some one can kill you against your wishes but you have no right to decide to give up your life. No Government can ensure that you live with dignity but it does surely poke its nose in preventing you by legislation from giving up on your life.

In 1987, the Bombay High Court ruled that the right to life included the right to die. This was not meant to cover euthanasia for terminally ill patients with incurable and painful diseases. The Court struck down Section 309 of I.P.C.(Punishment for attempted suicide) and held that people may wish to end their life due to disease, unbearable condition of life, a sense of shame or disenchantment with life. However, the Supreme Court in 1996 ruled that right to life does not include the right to die or the right to be killed. Judiciary particularly in India is the most respected institution and there too there are diverse views on the issue of right to die. This matter therefore requires to be debated threadbare to arrive at a universal consensus.

Following will serve as a prologue to the views of the author expressed later.
Jain Munis(saints) stop eating and drinking water once they feel that they have done all that was expected of them and their continued living was not necessary anymore. Their ‘ATMA’ leaves their body to meet the ‘PARAMATMA’ to attain eternal peace. They in their own way demonstrate their birthright to die with dignity.

Mahatma Gandhi, the strongest proponent of nonviolence expressed his views in the Gujarati Weekly ‘Navjeevan’ in October 1928. Killing of an ailing calf in Sabarmati Ashram, at his instance, had caused so much commotion, and he had received several angry letters on the subject. The following is an extract from his long response ‘ a calf , having been maimed, lay in agony in the ashram and despite all possible treatment and nursing, the surgeon declared the case to be past help and hope. The animal’s suffering was very acute. In the circumstances, I felt that humanity demanded that the agony should end by ending life itself. The matter was placed before the whole ashram . Finally, in all humility but with cleanest of convictions, I got in my presence a doctor to administer the calf a quietus by means of a poison injection and the whole thing was over in less than two minutes.“ would I apply to human beings the principle that I had enunciated in connection with the calf? Would I like it to be applied in my own case? My reply is yes. Just as a Surgeon does not commit ‘himsa’(violence) when he wields his knife on his patients body for latter’s benefit, similarly, one may find it necessary under some imperative circumstances to go a step further and severe life from the body in the interest of the sufferer”. This explanation of the Mahatma is self-explanatory in favor of passive euthanasia. But what about active euthanasia ?

Passive euthanasia is withdrawing life support system in terminally ill patients who have an incurable disease and who wish to die. The mandatory requirement for this should be a ‘ living will’ . Active Euthanasia is where an individual may be physically healthy but is desirous of ending his life at any point of time because of his own reasons which he may not like to even divulge. The requirement for this should be that the individual is an adult and should be required to fulfill specific legal formalities drafted for the purpose by a competent authority.

The intolerable suffering of the individual may not be physical. It may be due to severe mental anguish on account of one or more factors beyond the control of the sufferer with no hope of alleviation. Who is the best person to decide the degree of that suffering? Who knows best whether there is any ray of hope for relief? Naturally, the person himself. Such person should have therefore absolute right to decide whether to live or not.

There should therefore be serious debate to first accept universally that a human being has full right over his life and that he should have full authority to decide about life or death for himself. When this fundamental right of a human being is accepted universally, suitable legislations could be subsequently drafted to ensure death with dignity. I am reminded of the song of Maurice Chevalier from the film Cancan where he sings Live and let live, dance and let dance and strip and let strip. Here the theme song should be Live and let die with dignity.

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