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Legalising Passive Euthanasisa

Report No. 241 of the Law Commission (2012)

We shall start our discussion by taking an overview of the Law Commissionís 196th Report and the main features of legislation suggested by the Law Commission under the title - Medical Treatment to Terminally ill Patients (Protection of Patients and Medical Practitioners) Bill 2006 (vide Annexure Ė II).

At the risk of repetition, we may mention that the main difference between the recommendations of the Law Commission (in 196th Report) and the law laid down by the Supreme Court (pro tempore) lies in the fact that the Law Commission suggested enactment of an enabling provision for seeking declaratory relief before the High Court whereas the Supreme Court made it mandatory to get clearance from the High Court to give effect to the decision to withdraw life support to an incompetent patient.

The opinion of the Committee of experts should be obtained by the High Court, as per the Supreme Courtís judgment whereas according to the Law Commissionís recommendations, the attending medical practitioner will have to obtain the expertsí opinion from an approved panel of medical experts before taking a decision to withdraw/withhold medical treatment to such patient. In such an event, it would be open to the patient, relations, etc. to approach the High Court for an appropriate declaratory relief.

The following pertinent observations made by the then Chairman of the Law Commission in the forwarding letter dated 28 August 2006 addressed to the Honíble Minister are extracted below:
ďA hundred years ago, when medicine and medical technology had not invented the artificial methods of keeping a terminally ill patient alive by medical treatment, including by means of ventilators and artificial feeding, such patients were meeting their death on account of natural causes. Today, it is accepted, a terminally ill person has a common law right to refuse modern medical procedures and allow nature to take its own course, as was done in good old times.

It is well-settled law in all countries that a terminally ill patient who is conscious and is competent, can take an Ďinformed decisioní to die a natural death and direct that he or she be not given medical treatment which may merely prolong life. There are currently a large number of such patients who have reached a stage in their illness when according to well-informed body of medical opinion, there are no chances of recovery.

But modern medicine and technology may yet enable such patients to prolong life to no purpose and during such prolongation, patients could go through extreme pain and suffering. Several such patients prefer palliative care for reducing pain and suffering and do not want medical treatment which will merely prolong life or postpone death.Ē


As Defined In Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug v. Union of India
Passive euthanasia is usually defined as withdrawing medical treatment with a deliberate intention of causing the patient's death. For example, if a patient requires kidney dialysis to survive, not giving dialysis although the machine is available, is passive euthanasia. Similarly, if a patient is in coma or on a heart lung machine, withdrawing of the machine will ordinarily result in passive euthanasia. Similarly not giving life saving medicines like antibiotics in certain situations may result in passive euthanasia. Denying food to a person in coma or PVS may also amount to passive euthanasia.

As already stated above, euthanasia can be both voluntary or non voluntary. In voluntary passive euthanasia a person who is capable of deciding for himself decides that he would prefer to die (which may be for various reasons e.g., that he is in great pain or that the money being spent on his treatment should instead be given to his family who are in greater need, etc.), and for this purpose he consciously and of his own free will refuses to take life saving medicines.

In India, if a person consciously and voluntarily refuses to take life saving medical treatment it is not a crime. Whether not taking food consciously and voluntarily with the aim of ending one's life is a crime under section 309 IPC (attempt to commit suicide) is a question which need not be decided in this case.

Non voluntary passive euthanasia implies that the person is not in a position to decide for himself e.g., if he is in coma or PVS. The present is a case where we have to consider non voluntary passive euthanasia i.e. whether to allow a person to die who is not in a position to give his/her consent.[1]

Briefings of the case
Facts
The Petitioner Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug was a staff Nurse working in King Edward Memorial Hospital, Parel, Mumbai. On the evening of 27th November, 1973 she was attacked by a sweeper in the hospital who wrapped a dog chain around her neck and yanked her back with it. He tried to rape her but finding that she was menstruating, he sodomized her. To immobilize her during this act he twisted the chain around her neck.

The next day on 28th November, 1973 at 7.45 a.m. a cleaner found her lying on the floor with blood all over in an unconscious condition. It is alleged that due to strangulation by the dog chain the supply of oxygen to the brain stopped and the brain got damaged. It is alleged that the Neurologist in the Hospital found that she had plantars' extensor, which indicates damage to the cortex or some other part of the brain. She also had brain stem contusion injury with associated cervical cord injury. Her wrists are twisted inwards. Her teeth had decayed causing her immense pain.

She can only be given mashed food, on which she survives. It is alleged that Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug is in a persistent negetative state (p.v.s.) and virtually a dead person and has no state of awareness, and her brain is virtually dead. She can neither see, nor hear anything nor can she express herself or communicate, in any manner whatsoever. Mashed food is put in her mouth, she is not able to chew or taste any food.

Judged by any parameter, Aruna cannot be said to be a living person and it is only on account of mashed food which is put into her mouth that there is a facade of life which is totally devoid of any human element. It is alleged that there is not the slightest possibility of any improvement in her condition and her body lies on the bed in the KEM Hospital, Mumbai like a dead animal, and this has been the position for the last 36 years. The prayer of the Petitioner is that the Respondents be directed to stop feeding Aruna, and let her die peacefully.

Withdrawal Of Life Support Of A Patient In Permanent Vegetative State (PVS)

There is no statutory provision in our country as to the legal procedure for withdrawing life support to a person in PVS or who is otherwise incompetent to take a decision in this connection. Hence, following the technique used in Vishakha's case (supra), we are laying down the law in this connection which will continue to be the law until Parliament makes a law on the subject.

In our opinion, if we leave it solely to the patient's relatives or to the doctors or next friend to decide whether to withdraw the life support of an incompetent person there is always a risk in our country that this may be misused by some unscrupulous persons who wish to inherit or otherwise grab the property of the patient.

We agree with the decision of the Lord Keith in Airedale's case (supra) that the approval of the High Court should be taken in this connection. This is in the interest of the protection of the patient, protection of the doctors, relative and next friend, and for reassurance of the patient's family as well as the public. This is also in consonance with the doctrine of parens patriae which is a well-known principle of law.

Under Which Provision Of The Law Can The Court Grant Approval For Withdrawing Life Support To An Incompetent Person

In our opinion, it is the High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution which can grant approval for withdrawal of life support to such an incompetent person. Article 226(1) of the Constitution states:
Notwithstanding anything in Article 32, every High Court shall have power, throughout the territories in relation to which it exercises jurisdiction, to issue to any person or authority, including in appropriate cases, any Government, within those territories directions, orders or writs, including writs in the nature of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, quo warranto and certiorari, or any of them, for the enforcement of any of the rights conferred by Part III and for any other purpose.

Procedure To Be Adopted By The High Court When Such An Application Is Filed

When such an application is filed the Chief Justice of the High Court should forthwith constitute a Bench of at least two Judges who should decide to grant approval or not. Before doing so the Bench should seek the opinion of a committee of three reputed doctors to be nominated by the Bench after consulting such medical authorities/medical practitioners as it may deem fit.

Preferably one of the three doctors should be a neurologist, one should be a psychiatrist, and the third a physician. For this purpose a panel of doctors in every city may be prepared by the High Court in consultation with the State Government/Union Territory and their fees for this purpose may be fixed.

The committee of three doctors nominated by the Bench should carefully examine the patient and also consult the record of the patient as well as taking the views of the hospital staff and submit its report to the High Court Bench.

Simultaneously with appointing the committee of doctors, the High Court Bench shall also issue notice to the State and close relatives e.g. parents, spouse, brothers/sisters etc. of the patient, and in their absence his/her next friend, and supply a copy of the report of the doctor's committee to them as soon as it is available. After hearing them, the High Court bench should give its verdict. The above procedure should be followed all over India until Parliament makes legislation on this subject.

The High Court should give its decision speedily at the earliest, since delay in the matter may result in causing great mental agony to the relatives and persons close to the patient.

The High Court should give its decision assigning specific reasons in accordance with the principle of 'best interest of the patient' laid down by the House of Lords in Airedale's case (supra).
 The views of the near relatives and committee of doctors should be given due weight by the High Court before pronouncing a final verdict which shall not be summary in nature.

With this, the petition was dismissed.

Supreme Court Landmark Judgment Legalising Passive Euthanasia

As defined in Common Cause (A Regd. Society) Vs. Union of India (UOI) and Ors. MANU/SC/0232/2018

In a landmark judgment (Common Cause (A Regd. Society) v. Union of India & Anr.) delivered on 9th March, 2018, the Supreme Court of India held that a person in persistent vegetative state can opt for passive euthanasia, and that a person can execute a living will to refuse medical treatment in case of a terminal illness.

Brief Facts
The Petitioner was a registered society engaged in taking of the common problems of the people. The present petition was filed to bring to the notice of this Court the serious problem of violation of fundamental right to life, liberty, privacy and the right to die with dignity of the people of this country, guaranteed to them under Article 21 of the Constitution.

It was submitted that the people who are suffering from chronic diseases and are at the end of their natural life span are deprived of their rights to refuse cruel and unwanted medical treatment, like feeding through hydration tubes, being kept on ventilator and other life supporting machines in order to artificially prolong their natural life span. It was further pleaded that it was a common law right of the people, of any civilized country, to refuse unwanted medical treatment and no person could force him/her to take any medical treatment which the person did not desire to continue with.

The Two Issues
As already stated above, as of now insofar 'active euthanasia' is concerned, it is legally impermissible. Our discussion centres around 'passive euthanasia'. Another aspect which needs to be mentioned at this stage is that in the present petition filed by the Petitioner, the Petitioner wants that 'advance directive' or 'living will' should be legally recognised. In this backdrop, two important questions arise for considerations, viz.,
  1. whether passive euthanasia, voluntary or even, in certain circumstances, involuntary, is legally permissible? If so under what circumstances (this question squarely calls for answer having regards to the reference order made in the instant petition)? and
  2. whether a 'living will' or 'advance directive' should be legally recognised and can be enforced? If so, under what circumstances and what precautions are required while permitting it?

Guidelines by SC in deciding the case

In our considered opinion, Advance Medical Directive would serve as a fruitful means to facilitate the fructification of the sacrosanct right to life with dignity. The said directive, we think, will dispel many a doubt at the relevant time of need during the course of treatment of the patient. That apart, it will strengthen the mind of the treating doctors as they will be in a position to ensure, after being satisfied, that they are acting in a lawful manner. We may hasten to add that Advance Medical Directive cannot operate in abstraction. There has to be safeguards. They need to be spelt out. We enumerate them as follows:

Who can execute the Advance Directive and how?

  1. The Advance Directive can be executed only by an adult who is of a sound and healthy state of mind and in a position to communicate, relate and comprehend the purpose and consequences of executing the document.
  2. It must be voluntarily executed and without any coercion or inducement or compulsion and after having full knowledge or information.
  3. It should have characteristics of an informed consent given without any undue influence or constraint.
  4. It shall be in writing clearly stating as to when medical treatment may be withdrawn or no specific medical treatment shall be given which will only have the effect of delaying the process of death that may otherwise cause him/her pain, anguish and suffering and further put him/her in a state of indignity.

What should it contain?
  1. It should clearly indicate the decision relating to the circumstances in which withholding or withdrawal of medical treatment can be resorted to.
  2. It should be in specific terms and the instructions must be absolutely clear and unambiguous.
  3. It should mention that the executor may revoke the instructions/authority at any time.
  4. It should disclose that the executor has understood the consequences of executing such a document.
  5. It should specify the name of a guardian or close relative who, in the event of the executor becoming incapable of taking decision at the relevant time, will be authorized to give consent to refuse or withdraw medical treatment in a manner consistent with the Advance Directive.
  6. In the event that there is more than one valid Advance Directive, none of which have been revoked, the most recently signed Advance Directive will be considered as the last expression of the patient's wishes and will be given effect to.

How should it be recorded and preserved?

  1. The document should be signed by the executor in the presence of two attesting witnesses, preferably independent, and countersigned by the jurisdictional Judicial Magistrate of First Class (JMFC) so designated by the concerned District Judge.
  2. The witnesses and the jurisdictional JMFC shall record their satisfaction that the document has been executed voluntarily and without any coercion or inducement or compulsion and with full understanding of all the relevant information and consequences.
  3. The JMFC shall preserve one copy of the document in his office, in addition to keeping it in digital format.
  4. The JMFC shall forward one copy of the document to the Registry of the jurisdictional District Court for being preserved. Additionally, the Registry of the District Judge shall retain the document in digital format.
  5. The JMFC shall cause to inform the immediate family members of the executor, if not present at the time of execution, and make them aware about the execution of the document.
  6. A copy shall be handed over to the competent officer of the local Government or the Municipal Corporation or Municipality or Panchayat, as the case may be. The aforesaid authorities shall nominate a competent official in that regard who shall be the custodian of the said document.
  7. The JMFC shall cause to handover copy of the Advance Directive to the family physician, if any.

When and by whom can it be given effect to?

  1. In the event the executor becomes terminally ill and is undergoing prolonged medical treatment with no hope of recovery and cure of the ailment, the treating physician, when made aware about the Advance Directive, shall ascertain the genuineness and authenticity thereof from the jurisdictional JMFC before acting upon the same.
  2. The instructions in the document must be given due weight by the doctors. However, it should be given effect to only after being fully satisfied that the executor is terminally ill and is undergoing prolonged treatment or is surviving on life support and that the illness of the executor is incurable or there is no hope of him/her being cured.
  3. If the physician treating the patient (executor of the document) is satisfied that the instructions given in the document need to be acted upon, he shall inform the executor or his guardian/close relative, as the case may be, about the nature of illness, the availability of medical care and consequences of alternative forms of treatment and the consequences of remaining untreated. He must also ensure that he believes on reasonable grounds that the person in question understands the information provided, has cogitated over the options and has come to a firm view that the option of withdrawal or refusal of medical treatment is the best choice.
  4. The physician/hospital where the executor has been admitted for medical treatment shall then constitute a Medical Board consisting of the Head of the treating Department and at least three experts from the fields of general medicine, cardiology, neurology, nephrology, psychiatry or oncology with experience in critical care and with overall standing in the medical profession of at least twenty years who, in turn, shall visit the patient in the presence of his guardian/close relative and form an opinion whether to certify or not to certify carrying out the instructions of withdrawal or refusal of further medical treatment. This decision shall be regarded as a preliminary opinion.
  5. In the event the Hospital Medical Board certifies that the instructions contained in the Advance Directive ought to be carried out, the physician/hospital shall forthwith inform the jurisdictional Collector about the proposal. The jurisdictional Collector shall then immediately constitute a Medical Board comprising the Chief District Medical Officer of the concerned district as the Chairman and three expert doctors from the fields of general medicine, cardiology, neurology, nephrology, psychiatry or oncology with experience in critical care and with overall standing in the medical profession of at least twenty years (who were not members of the previous Medical Board of the hospital). They shall jointly visit the hospital where the patient is admitted and if they concur with the initial decision of the Medical Board of the hospital, they may endorse the certificate to carry out the instructions given in the Advance Directive.
  6. The Board constituted by the Collector must beforehand ascertain the wishes of the executor if he is in a position to communicate and is capable of understanding the consequences of withdrawal of medical treatment. In the event the executor is incapable of taking decision or develops impaired decision making capacity, then the consent of the guardian nominated by the executor in the Advance Directive should be obtained regarding refusal or withdrawal of medical treatment to the executor to the extent of and consistent with the clear instructions given in the Advance Directive.
  7. The Chairman of the Medical Board nominated by the Collector, that is, the Chief District Medical Officer, shall convey the decision of the Board to the jurisdictional JMFC before giving effect to the decision to withdraw the medical treatment administered to the executor. The JMFC shall visit the patient at the earliest and, after examining all aspects, authorise the implementation of the decision of the Board.
  8. It will be open to the executor to revoke the document at any stage before it is acted upon and implemented.

What if permission is refused by the Medical Board?

  1. If permission to withdraw medical treatment is refused by the Medical Board, it would be open to the executor of the Advance Directive or his family members or even the treating doctor or the hospital staff to approach the High Court by way of writ petition Under Article 226 of the Constitution. If such application is filed before the High Court, the Chief Justice of the said High Court shall constitute a Division Bench to decide upon grant of approval or to refuse the same. The High Court will be free to constitute an independent Committee consisting of three doctors from the fields of general medicine, cardiology, neurology, nephrology, psychiatry or oncology with experience in critical care and with overall standing in the medical profession of at least twenty years.
  2. The High Court shall hear the application expeditiously after affording opportunity to the State counsel. It would be open to the High Court to constitute Medical Board in terms of its order to examine the patient and submit report about the feasibility of acting upon the instructions contained in the Advance Directive.
  3. Needless to say that the High Court shall render its decision at the earliest as such matters cannot brook any delay and it shall ascribe reasons specifically keeping in mind the principles of "best interests of the patient".

Revocation or inapplicability of Advance Directive:

  1. An individual may withdraw or alter the Advance Directive at any time when he/she has the capacity to do so and by following the same procedure as provided for recording of Advance Directive. Withdrawal or revocation of an Advance Directive must be in writing.
  2. An Advance Directive shall not be applicable to the treatment in question if there are reasonable grounds for believing that circumstances exist which the person making the directive did not anticipate at the time of the Advance Directive and which would have affected his decision had he anticipated them.
  3. If the Advance Directive is not clear and ambiguous, the concerned Medical Boards shall not give effect to the same and, in that event, the guidelines meant for patients without Advance Directive shall be made applicable.
  4. Where the Hospital Medical Board takes a decision not to follow an Advance Directive while treating a person, then it shall make an application to the Medical Board constituted by the Collector for consideration and appropriate direction on the Advance Directive.

In case there is no Advanced Directive

It is necessary to make it clear that there will be cases where there is no Advance Directive. The said class of persons cannot be alienated. In cases where there is no Advance Directive, the procedure and safeguards are to be same as applied to cases where Advance Directives are in existence and in addition there to, the following procedure shall be followed:
  1. In cases where the patient is terminally ill and undergoing prolonged treatment in respect of ailment which is incurable or where there is no hope of being cured, the physician may inform the hospital which, in turn, shall constitute a Hospital Medical Board in the manner indicated earlier. The Hospital Medical Board shall discuss with the family physician and the family members and record the minutes of the discussion in writing. During the discussion, the family members shall be apprised of the pros and cons of withdrawal or refusal of further medical treatment to the patient and if they give consent in writing, then the Hospital Medical Board may certify the course of action to be taken. Their decision will be regarded as a preliminary opinion.
     
  2. In the event the Hospital Medical Board certifies the option of withdrawal or refusal of further medical treatment, the hospital shall immediately inform the jurisdictional Collector. The jurisdictional Collector shall then constitute a Medical Board comprising the Chief District Medical Officer as the Chairman and three experts from the fields of general medicine, cardiology, neurology, nephrology, psychiatry or oncology with experience in critical care and with overall standing in the medical profession of at least twenty years. The Medical Board constituted by the Collector shall visit the hospital for physical examination of the patient and, after studying the medical papers, may concur with the opinion of the Hospital Medical Board. In that event, intimation shall be given by the Chairman of the Collector nominated Medical Board to the JMFC and the family members of the patient.
     
  3. The JMFC shall visit the patient at the earliest and verify the medical reports, examine the condition of the patient, discuss with the family members of the patient and, if satisfied in all respects, may endorse the decision of the Collector nominated Medical Board to withdraw or refuse further medical treatment to the terminally ill patient.
     
  4. There may be cases where the Board may not take a decision to the effect of withdrawing medical treatment of the patient on the Collector nominated Medical Board may not concur with the opinion of the hospital Medical Board. In such a situation, the nominee of the patient or the family member or the treating doctor or the hospital staff can seek permission from the High Court to withdraw life support by way of writ petition Under Article 226 of the Constitution in which case the Chief Justice of the said High Court shall constitute a Division Bench which shall decide to grant approval or not. The High Court may constitute an independent Committee to depute three doctors from the fields of general medicine, cardiology, neurology, nephrology, psychiatry or oncology with experience in critical care and with overall standing in the medical profession of at least twenty years after consulting the competent medical practitioners. It shall also afford an opportunity to the State counsel. The High Court in such cases shall render its decision at the earliest since such matters cannot brook any delay. Needless to say, the High Court shall ascribe reasons specifically keeping in mind the principle of "best interests of the patient".

The Euthanasia (Regulation) Bill, 2019 By Shri Bhartruhari Mahtab, M.P.

The present Bill seeks to regulate euthanasia by making the following provisions:
  1. defining active euthanasia and passive euthanasia;
  2. allowing active euthanasia for terminally ill individuals who are facing acute suffering due to such illness;
  3. allowing passive euthanasia for individuals in permanent vegetative state;
  4. providing for constitution of an Evaluation and Review Board to examine patients requiring active or passive euthanasia;
  5. providing for constitution of a Committee of three physicians to decide whether a patient actually requires passive euthanasia; and
  6. providing that application of euthanasia involving a child shall be decided by the Evaluation and Review Board in consultation with a paediatrician to prevent misuse of law in such case.
End-Notes:
  1. Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug v. Union of India - Para 51

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