Common Cause vs. Union of India & Anr.- Passive Euthanasia and Living Wills

Introduction:

It is indeed a common saying that life is the best gift bestowed upon a man. Unfortunately, it is also undeniable that it is bound to lapse upon the death of a person. One of the several causes of death is the contraction of a medical ailment, which is incurable, irreparable and irreversible. The prominent question that arises here is that if it has been acknowledged upon that particular condition that bidding adieu to this world would happen soon, does the person possess the right to declare that he no longer wants to have his life? The right to have a dignified life is a widely accepted notion, but, is there a right to a dignified departure from this transient world. Active and passive euthanasia are among the four prominent types of euthanasia, with the former one involving the direct administration of a lethal item to a patient with merciful intent and the latter inculcating the withdrawal of the life support system, not giving medication etc. This blog takes into account a prominent and pivotal judgement delivered by the Supreme Court of India, namely ‘Common Cause vs. Union of India & Anr.[1]  involving legalising passive euthanasia under ‘living wills’, under which a person, of sound mind and good health, declares that he should not be kept alive with the aid of a life support system, when the doctors, at any stage of his life, assure the same.

Issue:

[2]An NGO based in Delhi, Common Cause, had approached India’s apex court in 2005, to expand the horizon of Article 21 of the Constitution of India. Since it includes the ‘fundamental right to live life with dignity, it was pleaded to inculcate the right to die with dignity, with the suitable process to adopt and execute ‘living wills’ and use Advanced Medical Directives. [3]Citing the verdict of Maruti Shripati Dubal vs. The State of Maharashtra[4] (in addition to relying on R.C. Cooper vs. Union of India[5]), it was contended that fundamental rights have two sides akin to a coin their positive as well as negative aspects. In Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug vs. Union of India[6], passive euthanasia was permitted under exceptional circumstances with the enforcement of strict guidelines as directed by the Court. [7]Apart from the said declaration, there were three prominent issues involved,

Whether

  1. There is a distinction between passive and active euthanasia?
  2. Can euthanasia be legalised?
  3. Can advanced medical directives on medical treatment be granted if the person loses his ability to communicate regarding the same in future?

Arguments Raised:

Petitioner: [8]Referring to the K.S. Puttuswamy & Anr. vs. Union of India & Ors.[9]  judgement, which granted fundamental status to the right to privacy, right to peaceful exit from life ought to be incorporated within its scope. Rather than keeping the individual in a persistent vegetative state, with all sorts of advanced medical methods, machines and equipment, further aggravating his prolonged pain and suffering, till he breathes his last bow, it would be much better to rather end it with his consent, with all that not being imposed upon him, since he possesses his individual space and agency till his death. It would also cater to the purpose of organ donation, reducing the time for those patients who require organ transplantation on an immediate basis, where it has been deduced that the donor would die sooner or later. Significant support came from an intervention committed by The Society for the Right to Die with Dignity, where they advocated for freedom of choice to legalise euthanasia.

Respondent: [10]Terming euthanasia as aggressive and incompatible with the right to life, by claiming that the medical professional’s interest in safeguarding and curing his patient would vanish, which would ultimately become a hindrance to researching novel methods of treatment and medication, it was countered by stating that the said reasoning was not supported by The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, India, with the state possessing the responsibility to ensure the continuance of lives of its subjects,  by interpreting Article 21 to have the right to food, health and shelter within its ambit, excluding anything related to the right to die.

Judgement:

An honourable five-judge bench delivered the verdict, which went in the favour of the petitioner, with the right to die with the dignity becoming one of the fundamental rights. The dichotomy between passive and active euthanasia was discussed by the Honourable Court, with the latter one being a crime in India, as on the day this blog has been penned, with the former one being legitimised, with the Court reversing its earlier position in the Aruna Shanbaug case[11], that it could be introduced solely by legislation. Regarding bodily integrity and self-determination, advanced medical directives were permitted country-wide, with the consent of guardian staying strong, in case the terminally ill patients and the likewise could not provide it, as held in  In re Quinlan[12] ruling by the Supreme Court of New Jersey with the principle of individual’s bodily autonomy being reinforced. Referring to Pretty vs. The United Kingdom[13] judgement by the European Court of Human Rights, it was concluded that a person had the right to avoid a distressing and painful end to his life, with such a right being backed by the right to respect for private life explicitly mentioned under Article 8(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Conclusive Analysis:

This might seem like a basic corollary of Article 21, which is already among the list of fundamental rights in Part III of the Indian Constitution, but, in the domain of law, even the slightest clarifications could be among the deciding factors in the future propositions. The right to die with dignity surpasses the conventional notion of life being gifted to us by the Almighty, with its voluntary end being immoral and unjust. Society has mended, laws have been amended time-to-time, and new legislations have evolved to suit the best interests of the masses.The Netherlands became the first country to legalise euthanasia[14]. The Law Commission of India, in its 196th Report, released in 2006, recommended that there must be a law to guard terminally ill patients to refuse the medical treatment, which could temporarily keep them alive but could not cure them[15]. Since the issues involved in Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code,1860 (attempt to commit suicide), being declared to be unconstitutional in P. Rathinam vs. Union of India[16], and getting over-ruled in 1996 in the Gian Kaur judgement[17], this concept has come a long way to serve what it intends to, augmenting and widening the scope of the law as a subject in the sphere of life as a whole, inculcating even its end.

Author(s) Name: Armaan Kukreja (Panjab University)

References:

[1] (2018) 5 SCC 1, AIR 2018 SC 1665

[2] Important Judgement of The Supreme Court of India

<https://nhrc.nic.in/press-release/important-judgment-supreme-court-india-1#:~:text=215%20of%202005%20%2D%20Common%20Cause,Chief%20Justice%20of%20India%2C%20Mr.> accessed 15 April  2022

[3] Common Cause (A Regd. Society) v Union of India and Another (2018) 5 SCC 1, AIR 2018 SC 1665

[4] 1987 (1) BomCR 499, (1986) 88 BOMLR 589

[5] AIR 1970 SC 564; 1970 SCR (3) 530

[6] (2011) 4 SCC 454

[7] Euthanasia and the Right to Die with Dignity <https://www.scobserver.in/cases/common-cause-euthanasia-and-the-right-to-die-with-dignity-case-background/ > accessed 15 April 2022

[8] Common Cause (A Regd. Society) vs. Union of India and Anr. <https://privacylibrary.ccgnlud.org/case/common-cause-a-regd-society-vs-union-of-india-uoi-and-ors> accessed 15 April 2022

[9] (2017) 10 SCC 1

[10] Common Cause vs. Union of India (2018) 5 SCC 1, AIR 2018 SC 1665

[11] 2011) 4 SCC 454

[12] (70 N.J. 10 , 355 A.2d 647 (NJ 1976))

[13] ECHR Application no. 2346/02

[14] Euthanasia in the Netherlands – Alliance VITA <https://www.alliancevita.org> accessed 22 April 2022

[15] Right to Die: Court in Review <https://www.scobserver.in/journal/right-to-die-court-in-review/ > accessed 15 April 2022

[16] 1994 AIR 1844, 1994 SCC (3) 394

[17] 1996 AIR 946, 1996 SCC (2) 648