Understanding Euthanasia

From Advocatespedia

"One should die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly."~ Friedrich Nietzsche

The above mentioned quote suggests the notion of living with pride and a sense of human dignity and thereafter the concept of choosing one’s own end willingly knowing its time. This concept is defined as “Euthanasia” in contemporary times. The English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon coined the phrase “euthanasia” early in the 17th century. Euthanasia is derived from the Greek word eu, meaning “good” and thanatos meaning “death,” and early on signified a “good” or “easy” death. Basically when a person ends his life by own act it is called suicide, but when it is by way of others especially requested by the person deceased, it is called Euthanasia.

Euthanasia is mainly associated with terminally ill people, or people in incapacitated or vegetative state who do not wish to go through their rest of the life, suffering and surviving on heavy doses of medicine. Euthanasia is a controversial issue as it encompasses the ethics, morals and belief systems of our society. It leads to the legal debate of whether a person having a legal right to live, should also have the right to self-destruction or death, basically a debate on right to die.


Over the years this discourse evolved and has formulated two different kinds of euthanasia narratives and different countries based on their policies have adopted either.

1. Active Euthanasia: it is the practice that involves specific steps to cause the patient’s death, it is an active action like injecting a lethal dose of medication or substance that causes death to the patient. It is legal in a few countries like Belgium and Netherlands where it is allowed under strict conditions. However, many international jurisdictions consider it equivalent to murder or manslaughter, as there is a moral distinction between killing and letting die; moreover, it raises concern on role of medical professionals in causing death.

Passive Euthanasia: it involves withholding or withdrawing medical treatments that prolong the life of a terminally ill patient, allowing them to die naturally, thus is considered an act of omission not action. The methods include not providing life supporting treatment, withdrawing life support systems and not providing medications. Under passive euthanasia, the focus is on patient’s right to refuse treatment and the principle of not prolonging suffering. Countries like UK, Germany, France, Italy have for provisions under their policies to allow for passive euthanasia.


To look into deeper aspect of the issue, we must analyse both sides of this coin carefully.

  • Arguments in favour of euthanasia: if we weigh the social values with the individual interest then we will clearly see that here the interest of the individual will outweigh the interest of the society. The society aims at interest of the individuals rather it is made with the purpose of assuring a dignified and a peaceful life to all. Euthanasia relieves the terminally ill people from a lingering death. It not only relives the unbearable pain of a patient but also relieves the relatives of a patient from the mental agony.

  1. Arguments against euthanasia: intense opposition from the religious groups and people from the legal and medical profession. According to them it’s not granting ‘right to die’ rather it should be called ‘right to kill’. They believe it to be against medical ethics of saving lives. Secondly if euthanasia is legalized, who is to determine the criteria of the suffering? Furthermore it has also been contended that if such legislation is to take effect, euthanasia should be administered at or upon the consent of the patient but this point of consent being taken by the supporters of euthanasia also fails to consider that if a patient is in great pain or is suffering from mental problems then the patient is nor in a position to make a free and balanced decision. Another argument against euthanasia is that when a healthy person is not allowed to commit suicide then why should a deceased person be allowed to do so. It is pointed out that suicide in a person who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness is no different than suicide for someone who is not considered terminally ill. Depression, family conflict, feelings of abandonment, hopelessness, etc. lead to suicide – regardless of one’s physical condition.


The law in India is very clear to these aspects of assisted suicide, right to suicide is not an available “right” in India, and is punishable under the Indian Penal Code, 1860. Provision of punishing suicide is contained in sections 305 , 306 and 309 of the said Code. Section 309, IPC has been brought under the scanner with regard to its constitutionality. There was also a debate between the concept of article 21: which grants all Indians the right to life, whether it is inclusive of the right to die as well or not. This was investigated by a panel of Constitution Bench in case of Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab. The judgement pronounced the ideal that the fundamental right to life enshrined by article 21 of the constitution, does not encompass the “right to die”.

However, the judgment of our Supreme Court in Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug v. Union of India opened the gateway for legalization of passive euthanasia. The patient was in a Persistent Vegetative State and virtually a dead person and had no state of awareness and her brain was virtually dead. Supreme Court established a committee for medical examination of the patient for ascertaining the issue, at the end the Court dismissed the petition on behalf of Shanbaug and allowed for passive euthanasia under rare cases of medical exceptions.


The current scenario in India, enables patients in P.V.S. or Persistent Vegetative State to claim Passive Euthanasia because of the Shanbaug case, understanding euthanasia laws stems not only as a matter of legality but also understanding various cultural backgrounds of it.