Who does not desire a painless and gentle end? A patient undergoing intense physical suffering without any hope for relief whatsoever would definitely long for such a death. Euthanasia means an easy and happy way of ending one’s life for such people. Translated from Greek the term ‘Euthanasia’ means a good death; the word ‘eu’ meaning goodly or well and ‘thanatos’ signifying death. It is resorted to in situations when a patient is suffering both mental and physical agony, has no hope of recovery and has requested the doctor to relieve him/her by inducing death through a lethal injection. Death can also be brought about by the passive method which involves withdrawing the life support system.
Euthanasia Through the Ages
It is interesting to see that euthanasia has continued to be a matter of great controversy and relevance right from ancient times till this day. Hippocrates the renowned Greek physician expressed his opposition to this practice in his Hippocratic Oath which was written in 400 BC. On the other hand the early Greek and Roman civilizations allowed voluntary euthanasia in instances where the persons concerned had no interest in life. During the 1300s the judiciary in England, considered suicide and helping people to kill themselves as criminal acts. This practice was opposed in 19th century America. In 1828, the first law against euthanasia known as the anti-euthanasia law was passed in New York. In those days, euthanasia was classified into two categories, viz. voluntary and involuntary. In the former instance, it was done with the consent of the patient concerned whereas the latter category referred to instances when a terminally ill patient was killed without his consent. In present times this practice is not legally permitted in most countries but some have allowed mercy killing under certain conditions.
Euthanasia in Different Countries
There have been instances in some countries where euthanasia had been permitted. For example in England there was this episode of a man whose brain was irreparably injured during a football stampede in 1993. After he had spent three years in a vegetative state of existence, a court allowed the withdrawal of life-prolonging treatment for him. However the question of either allowing or disallowing euthanasia is a highly tricky one and can lead to criminal misuse.
Euthanasia is openly resorted to in the Netherlands unlike in other countries. Though it is not explicitly sanctioned by Dutch law, the doctors can defend their action on the grounds that the patient had voluntarily requested for termination of his life and that his suffering could not be alleviated. Dutch law defines euthanasia as the termination of a patient’s life by a doctor at the expressed request of the former. The patient should have voluntarily and repeatedly appealed to the doctor for this measure only after careful consideration, and when his suffering is unbearable without any hope. Some forms of active euthanasia are legal in other countries such as Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and in the US states of Oregon and Washington. But even in these countries, as per the legal norm, anyone who encourages another to commit suicide is considered as guilty of felony.
In Ireland, it is illegal for someone to contribute to the death of another person; however it is not illegal to remove the life support system if the patient has requested for it. In Mexico, active euthanasia is illegal but since 2008 the law permits the terminally to refuse any further medical treatment which would extend life. Active euthanasia is illegal in Norway too but it has softened its penalties in instances where the patient is hopelessly sick and consents to the caregiver terminating his life.
Euthanasia in India
There have been a few instances in India where mercy killing had been sought. There is the heart-rending case of a father in Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, who wrote to the President of India in 2008 pleading for mercy killing for his four young sons who were all paralyzed below the neck. This father’s plea was rejected. Would it not have been far more humane if his plea for mercy killing had been allowed? In March 2011, the Supreme Court of India had allowed passive euthanasia by removing the life –support system, under “exceptional circumstances”; however it has made it clear that active euthanasia is illegal. Passive euthanasia under “exceptional circumstances” could be allowed provided the request was made by family members and was done under the supervision of the doctors and the courts.
This judgment was passed during the hearing of the famous case of Aruna Shanbag who had been raped and strangulated 37 years ago and had been lying in a Mumbai hospital in a vegetative state since then. She had been cared for by the nursing staff of this hospital during these decades. A journalist Virani had filed a case in the Supreme Court asking that Aruna be allowed to die with dignity. However, the staff at the Mumbai hospital who had cared for Aruna opposed this move. The Supreme Court ruled that the nurses of this hospital were the only ones who could ask for stopping the feeding of the patient. As there was no one to claim kinship with her, these nurses were Aruna’s next friends in the eyes of the law, and they were in favour of keeping her alive.
Fasting to the point of death is not permitted by Indian law, though it is a part of Indian culture and was often practiced by Mahatma Gandhi.
Why Euthanasia should be allowed
Those who support euthanasia argue that it is a source of release for someone who is suffering from a painful and an incurable disease. Hence, making it legally permissible would help a terminally ill patient to liberate himself from his miserable condition. If an individual, suffering from an incurable disease, cannot be cured and if there is no hope of improving the quality of life, then he should be allowed to take recourse to the alternative of induced death. Such a patient should be given the right to decide whether he wants to live on or whether he wants to end his life with dignity. Maintaining the life support system against his wishes would be unethical on medical grounds.
The case against Euthanasia
However, on the other hand it can be argued that killing another human being cannot be justified under any circumstances. Owing to the great leaps made in medical science, it is possible not only to ensure longevity but also to enhance the quality of life. Palliative medicines enable a disabled or a terminally ill patient to lead a pain-free existence.
Another argument against legalizing euthanasia is that unscrupulous relatives of an ailing but wealthy patient might try to influence him into opting for this measure for their own personal gain. Even if a patient expresses a desire for euthanasia, it cannot be ascertained as to whether it is a logical decision or whether it is the result of mental turmoil.
There can be no easy answer to the question of whether euthanasia should be legally permitted or not. As far as one can see it will continue to be a highly contentious issue for all times to come.