Do we have the “Right to Die?”
Reflections on Pro-Life Day, March 25th, 2014
-Fr. Cedric Prakash sj*
Today, March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation of our Lord is observed in several parts of the world as Pro-Life Day. It is the day on which we take a stand for the unborn child; say “NO” to the death penalty; highlight the fact that wars, murders and violence of all kinds still take centre-stage and above all, that the scourge of euthanasia is slowly becoming more and more acceptable in many parts of the world.
Exactly a month ago, on February 25th, 2014, the Supreme Court of India in a bench headed by the Chief Justice P Sathasivam held that the verdict given earlier in March 2011 in the Aruna Shanbaug case was based on a “wrong premise” and therefore decided to re-examine the earlier judgement which allowed “passive euthanasia” permission to withdraw life support from patients in a permanently vegetative state and to permit them to die.
This verdict is already a subject of much debate because it not only questions the 2011 judgement by the Bench headed by Justice Markandey Katju which gave thousands of patients either suffering from an incurable disease or living in a vegetative state the possibility of ending their agony by saying that the parents, spouse or any other immediate relative could take this important decision after getting the necessary consent from the concerned High Court but it also brings the debate on “euthanasia” back to centre-stage.
In 2011, when the verdict was delivered, it very naturally created a huge uproar all over the country. The judgement was based on a PIL filed on behalf of a 60 year old female patient Aruna Shanbaug who was assaulted and strangulated by a sweeper in a hospital on November 27th, 1973. Though she survived, she never fully recovered from the trauma and the brain damage resulting from that assault and strangulation, inspite of tremendous compassion, attention and care, not only by her family members but also by the nurses and other staff members who looked after her for 37 long years. After examining various pros and cons, the Divisional Bench headed by Justice Katju said that permission could be given in the case of Aruna Shanbaug for “passive euthanasia”. The fact however is that even today Aruna lives – in tremendous pain and agony.
When on February 25th, 2014 the Apex Court very strongly stated that the previous verdict allowing “passive euthanasia” was delivered on a wrong premise, it also referred the case to a five member Constitution Bench to clear the air on this contentious issue for the benefit of humanity since an important question of law is also involved in it. The court categorically stated that “in view of the inconsistent opinions rendered in Aruna Shanbaug case and also considering the important question of law involved which needs to be reflected in the light of social, legal, medical and constitutional perspective, it becomes extremely important to have a clear enunciation of law. Thus, in our cogent opinion, the question of law involved requires careful consideration by a Constitution Bench in this Court for the benefit of humanity as a whole.”
Strangely enough on February 13th 2014, the Belgium Parliament voted in favour for allowing euthanasia for terminally ill children without age limit. On March 3rd, the King of Belgium signed into law this controversial bill making Belgium the first country in the world to allow euthanasia for terminally ill children of all ages. The bill was passed and signed to law despite huge protests and oppositions from all over Europe and the world that this should not be done.
Earlier in 2002, Belgium was only the second country in the world besides the Netherlands to have legalised euthanasia in the 21st century. In 1999, Albania permitted passive euthanasia. In 2008, Luxembourg passed and legalized euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide laws. That most countries in the world and most people in the world are not inclined to either accept euthanasia or deal with this contentious issue is already a case in point.
On 10th December 1948, the General Assembly of United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Both the Preamble and the 30 Articles which follow, focus on the culture of life: promoting life and enhancing the quality of living, rather than on the culture of death. So what must be accepted as sacrosanct is the fact that this Charter provides a framework for all to live in a qualitative manner rather than attempting to demand the right to die or the right to take another person’s life.
There are several arguments for and against in the euthanasia debate. Those who argue for euthanasia maintain the following:
· when a person is in a vegetative state, in a coma or is terminally ill instead of allowing a person to suffer (other near and dear ones also suffer), one can ensure a “death with dignity” rather than force them to live an unproductive life.
· “I have a right to do with myself / my body what I want” therefore if I choose the right to die, no one can stop me from doing so
· I have neither the resources, the time or the inclination to keep this family member alive artificially
· government legislation can safely regulate who are permitted to die and how and when
On the other hand, there are several more arguments against euthanasia. These include:
- God alone is the author of life and death and no one can and should ever demand the right to die for themselves or for others.
- the right to die is on a ‘slippery slope’ which can easily become the right to be killed. So it opens the huge window of immoral acts like a doctor or a nurse can conveniently kill several patients under their care because of “compassion” (example “Doctor Death” in Australia)
- legalizing euthanasia means mainstreaming the culture of death in society
- more and more would conveniently legitimize any form of death from abortion to the death penalty
- there would never truly be checks and balances. It is common knowledge that even in those places where euthanasia and physician-assisted suicides are legal, the doctors usually do not always report it
- for a patient, the right to die also obviously means that a physician or a nurse have to assist in the actual act of dying which technically means “killing the other”
The Catholic Church is very clear of its stand on euthanasia. In 1980, ‘the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released its Declaration on Euthanasia (entitled ‘Jura et Bona’) and which takes a very clear stand on it. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2276 – 2279) provides a very succinct explanation of the Catholic Church’s position terming it as morally unacceptable and an evil action. The Second Vatican Council condemned “all offences against life itself such as murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and willful suicide” (Gaudium et Spes #27).
In India, by and large adherents of the major religions be it Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism or Buddhism – at this stage, will never accept euthanasia on principle because of their respective teachings to promote and defend life.
Euthanasia is clearly violative of the right to life. In simple logic, providing a right which contradicts in sum and substance the Rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes the great Charter both redundant and irrelevant. This will obviously lead to chaos all over with every single person trying to justify or legitimize his or her own act and not mindful of the consequences or repercussions these acts may cause, to the morality of our times.
In 2010, an Indian drama romance film called ‘Guzaarish’ (‘Request’) received critical acclaim and awards and nominations in all the leading award ceremonies of India. The movie is centred around a Goan, Ethan Mascarenhas, who is a quadriplegic paralysed from the neck down, after a serious accident during a magic show he was performing. On the 14th anniversary of this accident, he decides to file an appeal in the court for euthanasia. His plea is rejected twice because the judge very clearly states that the legal code of the country cannot be violated under any circumstance. But his legion of friends and admirers have no qualms of conscience in supporting Ethan in his desire to end his life. At a farewell party for several of them, Ethan tells all of them that he will be dying a happy man without any regrets. His friends come to the couch and hug him goodbye. The movie ends just with Ethan laughing heartily. While, what the Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali was trying to communicate was the fact that Ethan had the right to decide for himself – a film critic can easily interpret the final burst of laughter “at his joy of being alive!”
Meanwhile, the raging debate on euthanasia will continue for a long time to come...even if we really do NOT have the right to die….!
25th March, 2014
(* Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is the Director of PRASHANT, the Ahmedabad based Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace)
Address: PRASHANT, Hill Nagar, Near Kamdhenu Hall, Drive-in Road, Ahmedabad - 380052