Debates over assisted suicide, or euthanasia, crop up once in a while, and recently it was in the news again when legendary film director Jean-Luc Godard, who led the revolutionary French New Wave of cinema, died by assisted suicide in Switzerland. Godard was 91 and suffering from ‘multiple invalidating illnesses’.
Assisted suicide, in which a person is assisted to take her own life, is allowed in Switzerland in certain circumstances. Assisted suicide under certain circumstances is also legal in Austria, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, parts of the United States, and parts of Australia.
Amid the outpouring of grief and condolences, Godard’s death rekindled debates around assisted suicide and euthanasia. Although often used interchangeably, the former is when a person is assisted to take her own life, while in the latter, a doctor is allowed by law to end a person’s life by painless means. Both have remained controversial issues given the ethical, moral, and often, religious ideas involved.
After Godard’s death, French president Emmanuel Macron announced a national debate on the issue, including legalising assisted suicide. Not just now, while campaigning for his presidential re-election earlier this year, he promised to open such a debate. He even suggested that he was in favour of legalising doctor-assisted suicide. It is to be noted here that a 2016 French law allows doctors to keep terminally sick patients sedated before death. It, however, fell short of calling it assisted suicide or passive euthanasia.
Among the nations that allow assisted suicide, Canada is often termed as the most permissive of them all. It allows people with serious disabilities to die this way in the absence of any other sickness. A row erupted in 2019 when 61-year-old Alan Nichols was put to death after he requested to be euthanised. The man suffered from depression and some other medical issues, none of which were a threat to his life. However, despite concerns raised by his family and a nurse practitioner, Nichols was put to medically-assisted death. “Alan was basically put to death,” his brother had said then.
What do laws in India say?
Assisted suicide and euthanasia are controversial topics in India as they are in the rest of the world.
Euthanasia is of two types: active and passive. Active euthanasia involves the use of a substance to end a person’s life. In the passive kind, on the other hand, the lifesaving treatment or medical intervention of a person is stopped with the consent of family members. In a landmark judgement in 2018, the Supreme Court allowed passive euthanasia, calling it a matter of ‘living will’. It also chalked out guidelines for a ‘living will’ that could be made by chronically sick patients beforehand who already knew that had a chance to get into a vegetative state. It went on to highlight that the right of such people would not fall under Article 21 of the Constitution which grants the right to life and liberty.
The Aruna Shanbaug case
While speaking of India’s euthanasia law, it is imperative to talk about the Aruna Shanbaug case which paved the way for the 2018 ruling. In 2009, journalist Pinki Virani, who was following the case, petitioned the SC seeking passive euthanasia for Shanbaug, a nurse at Mumbai’s King Edward Memorial Hospital who had been in coma since 1973 following rape and assault by a sweeper at the same hospital. The apex court turned down the plea in 2011. She died of pneumonia four years later after living much of her life in a vegetative state.
In 2018, an elderly couple from Mumbai wrote to then president Ram Nath Kovind, asking him for permission for assisted suicide. They were not suffering from any life-threatening condition, they said, but led a happy life and did not want to depend on hospitals later in life. The plea was rejected.
Most recently, a Bengaluru woman moved the Delhi High Court to stop a friend (48), based in Noida, from flying to Europe for an alleged assisted suicide. The friend has a debilitating health condition. She later withdrew the petition.
Here, it is also notable to mention the practice of Sallekhana, or santhara, which is a religious practice followed by Jains who stop eating in a process of preparing for death. In 2015, the Rajasthan High Court ruled that the centuries-old practice should be treated as attempted suicide and its abetment. Both are punishable under Indian law.