New Delhi: The Supreme Court Wednesday issued notice to all states seeking their views on a poser whether a terminally ill person can execute a living will that his or her life support system be withdrawn if he or she reaches a vegetative state with no hope of revival.
The constitution bench of Chief Justice R.M. Lodha, Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar, Justice J. Chelameswar, Justice A.K. Sikri and Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman issued the notice on a plea before it, saying the question of euthanasia (mercy killing) needs a comprehensive examination as there was no authoritative judicial pronouncement on the issue.
The court also said passive euthanasia was permitted with safeguards.
The notice is returnable in eight weeks.
The court appointed senior counsel T.R. Andhyarujina as amicus curiae.
The constitution bench's remark came in the course of a hearing of a Feb 25 reference by the bench of Chief Justice P. Sathasivam (since retired), Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Shiva Kirti Singh seeking a clear enunciation of the law on voluntary passive euthanasia in the light of social, legal, medical and constitutional perspective for the benefit of humanity as a whole.
The Feb 25 apex court reference had come on a plea by NGO Common Cause seeking the right of terminally ill patient to execute amy living will and 'attorney authorization' for the withdrawal of all life support system in case he or she enters a vegetative state with the journey to natural death having already commenced.
Given the complexity of the issue, the hearing saw the court weighing various options, including which was a better forum for the determination of the issue - the court or the legislature before finally deciding to hear the matter.
The court said: "Legislature is the only forum where many views will be deliberated and filtered. The court can't visualise all the situation. How to make it fool proof. It is a matter of life and death."
Justice Chelameswar said: "Prima facie, I am of the view that not only parliament but even the state legislatures can deliberate on the issue.
Seeking the matter to be better left to the legislature, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi said: "Euthanasia in whatever form is a matter for the legislature (to deliberate) and not for the court (to decide)."
Opposing the plea by NGO Common Cause, Rohatgi said passive euthanasia was a form of suicide and how could it be harmonised with penal provisions on abetment of suicide and attempt to suicide.
Rohatgi said there was no clear distinction between active and passive euthanasia.
Giving lethal injunction is active euthanasia and shutting out the life support system thereby accelerating the conclusion of the process of natural death which had already commenced is categorised as passive euthanasia.
Addressing the ground realities, Rohatgi told the court that sometimes relatives of a terminally ill patient on the course of natural death want to end his or her life but doctors want to wait for 10 days and each day costs Rs.25,000 and the family may not have the amount.
Appearing for NGO Common Cause, counsel Prashant Bhushan said the 1996 apex court constitution bench in the Gyan Kaur case had said that the right to live with dignity included the right to die with dignity.
He said the right to die with dignity and the right of the patient to refuse medical treatment could be extended to voluntary passive euthanasia in the case of a terminally ill patient suffering from pain and with no hope of recovery.
Pressing the plea that a terminally ill patient with deteriorating health and no hope of recovery should be allowed to execute his or her living will and 'attorney authorization', Bhushan said it could be allowed with sufficient safeguards as such a right flows from the common law and patient's right to refuse treatment.
The apex court March 7, 2011, in the Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug case had allowed passive euthanasia with the approval of the concerned high court.
The constitution bench of the apex court in the Gyan Kaur case had March 21, 1996, held that article 21 (right to life and personal liberty) could not be interpreted to include the right to curtail the natural span of life in the case of a terminally ill person on the course of natural death.