Have a Right to Take Your Life?

352338550_74876368aa1.jpg “O Lord! Relieve me of this excruciating pain, O Lord! Free me, Embrace me….”

What else precisely would you expect from a person who is in an advanced state of malignancy?

“Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.”

Literally, this holds true for a patient in the advanced stage of Rabies, one who desperately seeks at least a sip of water but cannot have it. The moment he consumes it, he gets spasms and convulsions all over in his body (because of hydrophobia).

The patients in both these hypothetical examples long for death. But will their wish be fulfilled? Not in India, at least! Coming to the point, we are discussing Euthanasia (or mercy killing), which has always been an issue of immense ethical debate and controversy.

Let’s examine the history and the pros and cons of Euthanasia, and see what the experts and the youth have to say about it.

Meaning and Ways: Euthanasia is the practice of ending the life of a terminally ill person in a painless or minimally painful way, for the purpose of limiting suffering. It may be conducted in three ways, passively, non-aggressively and aggressively. Passive euthanasia is the most accepted form wherein the patient is kept away from the common treatments (such as antibiotics, drugs, or surgery) or is medicated (say, with morphine) so as to relieve pain, knowing that it may also result in death. Non-aggressive euthanasia involves withdrawing of life support, while Aggressive euthanasia involves usage of lethal substances or force to kill and is the most controversial means.

It may be conducted with or without consent. Involuntary euthanasia is conducted against someone’s will and equates to murder. Sometimes the person is incapable to make a decision and it is thus left to a proxy. Since it is conducted without the consent of the person in question, it is called Non-voluntary euthanasia. Voluntary euthanasia is one which is conducted with the person’s direct consent.

History: The term euthanasia comes from the Greek words “eu” and “thanatos” which combined means “good death”. Hippocrates mentions euthanasia in the Hippocratic Oath (written between 400 and 300 B.C) as: “To please no one will I prescribe a deadly drug nor give advice which may cause his death.” Despite this, the ancient Greeks and Romans generally did not believe that life needed to be preserved at any cost and were tolerant of suicide in cases where no relief could be offered to the dying or where a person no longer cared for his life.

Since the 19th Century, euthanasia has sparked intermittent debates and activism in North America and Europe. Euthanasia societies were formed in England in 1935 and in the U.S.A. in 1938 to promote aggressive euthanasia. In 1939, Nazis, in what was code named Action T4, involuntarily euthanized children under three who exhibited mental retardation, physical deformity, or other such problems whom they considered “life unworthy of life”. This program was later extended to include older children and adults.

Pros and Cons: Euthanasia is helpful in cases where the patient suffers from terrible pain and it is clear that there is no possible cure for the illness and that he would ultimately face death. In many cases, it is very depressing to see the pain and misery of the patient. The symptoms associated with the disease are quite harsh and cause a lot of trouble for the patient and his relatives. Likewise, the treatment is also painfully harsh. In such cases, relieving the patient of the pain and letting him die a peaceful death is somewhat a wise decision; after all, it’s his body and we should respect the person’s decision. Advocates of euthanasia also argue that life support systems (like ventilator) and other medical resources, including the doctor’s time and expertise can be better utilized for treating patients who can be cured rather than ones who are sure to die.

However, the other side of the coin reveals a different story. Some people regard euthanasia as an immoral and sinful act; they tend to equate it with murder and suicide (voluntary euthanasia). Also, the practice of euthanasia can be misused to deliberately bring about the unnecessary death of the person for greed of property or for settling scores. Critics also argue that sometimes it may be difficult for the doctors to ascertain whether the patient has already surpassed the curable stage, and that he would die eventually. In some cases, the patient may not be in a position to ascertain what is good or bad for him and may take such a decision under pressure of the hospital personnel, or in order to release his family from the financial burden due to his treatment. When the patient is not fit to take a decision, it is left to a proxy which is quite unfair. Moreover, it is painful for the family members to support such a decision; they would rather try their best to be with their dear one for as long as they can.

Recent Case in India: Venkatesh, a 25-year-old muscular dystrophy patient, wanted to be granted the right to die. He sought to enforce the right so that he could donate organs before they were affected by his illness. The plea was rejected a day before his death by the Andhra Pradesh high court. The court ruled that the petition sought to violate the Transplantation of Human Organs Act, 1995, which had no provisions that allowed individuals to donate organs before they were brain dead. However, the order indirectly reiterated the stated legal position that an individual had no right to end his life voluntarily.

Public Opinion: Sharing his view, leading oncologist and cancer specialist Dr. R.M. Singhal said, “In my personal opinion, euthanasia is an absolute must in certain cases. For instance, in case of advanced Cancer, where the patient has to suffer a lot, the chance of recovery is nil and resources are expensive and in limited supply, it is better to let the person die than prolonging the illness and making the whole family suffer.”According to stainless steel businessman Umesh Goel, “If the patient is in extreme pain and is finding difficult to tolerate the same, then we are in some sense punishing him by keeping him alive. Moreover, medical resources are wasted. So it is mutually beneficial.” Turning to the Youth Brigade; Radhika Kapoor, an Economics Student, opines, “Allow it only if you can justify the reason. It is not the same as suicide.” Echoing a similar tune, biotechnology student Shashank Saran said, “Euthanasia should be made legal in cases where it is impossible to cure a disease or when the pain is unbearable. It is better to relieve the person of the pain by means of a painless death.”

However, economics student Rahim Shariq begs to differ. He feels that this practice is immoral as it is against human dignity. Voicing her concern, economics student Malavika Vyawahare said, “I am against the practice of euthanasia because there is lot of uncertainty involved. The patients are not in a good position to decide what they really want.”

Euthanasia continues to be a topic of heated debate. According to me, it should be legalized in India. However, such cases should be studied carefully and one must resort to euthanasia only when there is no possible cure and the patient is unable to cope with the illness, i.e., when the reason is justifiable.

Empathizing with such patients and understanding their psyche can yield many answers. They have to bear acute pain, both in terms of the physical suffering as well as mental suffering seeing the worry and pain of their peers.

Are we ready for it? Only time will tell…

Pratik Goel

Delhi, India