Changes in Living Will Guidelines

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On Tuesday, a five-judge Bench of the Supreme Court headed by Justice K M Joseph agreed to significantly ease the procedure for passive euthanasia in the country by altering the existing guidelines for ‘living wills’, as laid down in its 2018 judgment in Common Cause vs.

Aruna Shanbaug’s room at KEM Hospital in Mumbai. The judgment in her case legalised passive euthanasia. (EXpress photo by Vasant Prabhu)

Union of India & Anr, which allowed passive euthanasia. What is the legal history of this matter, and the issues involved?

First, what is euthanasia, and what is a living will?

Euthanasia refers to the practice of an individual deliberately ending their life, oftentimes to get relief from an incurable condition, or intolerable pain and suffering. Euthanasia, which can be administered only by a physician, can be either ‘active’ or ‘passive’.Active euthanasia involves active intervention to end a person’s life with substances or external force, such as administering a lethal injection. Passive euthanasia refers to withdrawing life support or treatment that is essential to keep a terminally ill person alive.Passive euthanasia was legalised in India by the Supreme Court in 2018, contingent upon the person having a ‘living will’ or a written document that specifies what actions should be taken if the person is unable to make their own medical decisions in the future.In case a person does not have a living will, members of their family can make a plea before the High Court to seek permission for passive euthanasia.

What did the SC rule in 2018?

The Supreme Court allowed passive euthanasia while recognising the living wills of terminally-ill patients who could go into a permanent vegetative state, and issued guidelines regulating this procedure.

A five-judge Constitution Bench headed by then Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dipak Misra said that the guidelines would be in force until Parliament passed legislation on this. However, this has not happened, and the absence of a law on this subject has rendered the 2018 judgment the last conclusive set of directions on euthanasia.

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