Live Well, Die Better?

photocms.jpeg The US Supreme Court on March 31, 2005 allowed Terry Schiavo, a terminally ill Florida woman to die seven years after her husband filed an appeal for the removal of her feeding tube, her only means to life. Her deeply Catholic parents had opposed the move. The court in its judgment had upheld the right of an individual to a “dignified death”. Euthanasia or ‘mercy killing’ legalized first in the Netherlands remains a much-debatable topic even today.

A CPI MP from Kerela has introduced a Bill in Parliament seeking to legalize euthanasia. The Bill states that “a person who’s completely invalid and/or is bed-ridden or who cannot carry out his daily chores without regular assistance, can either himself or through persons authorized by him have the option to file an application for euthanasia with the civil surgeon or the chief medical officer (CMO) of the district government hospital”. The CMO will place the application before a specific medical board, which will be responsible for examining the actual condition of the patient. If the board is convinced of the veracity of the case, it will issue a certificate recommending the patient’s case for euthanasia.

But the Bill has already sparked a controversy. The chief argument, used even in the Terry Schiavo case, was that granting the permission to die means putting a total end to any kind of future medical break-through that could save a patient’s life. Also, medical science has seen cases where patients have recovered from impossible and hopeless situations. The counter argument, a favorite of pro-euthanasia medics have been the right to die with dignity and not make patients guinea pigs. Euthanasia, they say, would provide for a practical, compassionate, humane and painless option for patients living more or less in a ‘vegetative state’ or in a condition of acute pain and misery, with practically no chance of recovery.

The Bill, its detractors say, also raises serious ethical and moral questions. The purist’s argument of ‘since we cannot give life, we have no right to take it’, is almost cliché, but has been backed by sections of society that believes in a more hard-line, ritualistic and loud religion manner. Also, the Bill is seen as a contravention of Article 21 of the constitution, which guarantees ‘the right to life’. There is a huge apprehension, that the bill could be misused by vested interests to serve their own purposes. Here too, the argument against it says that any law could be misused and that it was up to the state to ensure that it is not exploited.

In 2004, K. Venkatesh, a former national chess champion, suffering from Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy, a neurological disorder, had pleaded to be taken off his life-support system, a plea rejected by the Andhra Pradesh High Court. He died within two days of the court rejecting his mother’s appeal. However for some, a rejection means months, sometimes years of suffering and pain. The Bill seeks to help people like Venkatesh. But, since it’s a private member’s bill and not government backed, it remains to be seen if it can gather enough support in Parliament.

Anupam Dhar