Euthanasia debate: Removing choice reduces us into pawns in the hands of state agencies

Friedrich Nietzsche once said: “There is a certain right by which we many deprive a man of life, but none by which we may deprive him of death; this is mere cruelty.” As the debate over euthanasia gains renewed traction from the draft bill drawn up by the union government on passive euthanasia, we may do well to recall Nietzsche’s profound words.

According to media reports today, the Union health ministry last week put up the draft of the Terminally Ill Patients (protection of patients and medical practitioners) Bill, on its website, inviting responses from people to its provisions. The current draft bill on euthanasia seeks to provide patients with the right to "withhold or withdraw medical treatment to herself or himself" and "allow nature to take its own course". “The bill provides protection to patients and doctors from any liability for withholding or withdrawing medical treatment and states that palliative care (pain management) can continue.”

Like elsewhere in the world, in India too, the right to die is a deeply fraught subject; a subject people do not want to engage with, directly or publicly – let alone be seen as support the contentious idea. If society at large talks about euthanasia at all, it does so only behind closed doors and not as a matter of public discourse. Ending this culture of silence on the right to die — a concept that has such an important bearing on our lives — has been long overdue. The truth is that allowing a person the right to have agency over her life or death should be treated as a marker of compassion rather than cruelty.

The right to die with dignity is an intimate decision that should be left to the choice of the individual and not government or state agencies. It’s indeed an ironic situation, where India has retained death penalty in its statute books but has refused to give a human being the right to take ownership of her own life and death. The very state which executes death a sentence - does not at the same time allow a person to exercise the right to end her life, even when she is confronting the agony of prolonged terminal illness.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

We often make the mistake such a decision to be a manifestation of what we like to believe is Indian society’s innate compassion. The reality however belies such an assumption. As a society we are yet to live up to the values of compassion that we so ardently and arrogantly lay claims to. Consider in this context, the ruthless practice of sending widows to exile which Indian society has sanctioned without demur.

Cutting across the class spectrum - sons and daughters, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, send off widows in their families to Vrindavan. Exiled to a life of loneliness, it is there – in the land of the Bhakti movement - the widows breathe the last; an act of cruelty that has gone on for decades without causing the state or the families of the exiled, any anguish. It may be found that these very families that exile their own also publicly oppose passive euthanasia.

The fractious debate over euthanasia however is not peculiar to India. After an animate debate, the British Parliament, in September 2015, rejected a bill that would have allowed assisted suicide. The legislation, known as the Assisted Dying Bill, would have mandated doctors in England to prescribe lethal injections to some terminally ill patients who had less than six months to live. Put to vote in Parliament, the bill was overwhelmingly rejected by 330 votes to 118.

Supporting the Assisted Dying Bill, Cambridge scientist Stephen Hawking, in a media interview had confessed to having briefly contemplated and even attempted suicide in 1985. Diagnosed with a motor neuron disease at the age of 21, Professor Hawking caught pneumonia in 1985. His lungs, already debilitated from his condition, were unable to cope. The scientist had to undergo a tracheostomy operation, during which a tube was inserted into his windpipe through his neck, which irreversibly removing his voice.

“I admit that when I had my tracheostomy operation, I briefly tried to commit suicide by not breathing. However, the reflex to breathe was too strong,” Hawking candidly admitted in the BBC interview. Hawking also described the opposition to the bill as “discrimination against the disabled to deny them the right to kill themselves that able bodied people have.”

As of 2015, euthanasia was only legal in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Assisted suicide was legal in Switzerland, Germany, Albania, Colombia, Japan and in the American states of Washington, Oregon, Vermont, New Mexico and Montana.

True, the will to live usually transcends the will to die – a general law of human nature. Also, the very reason why allowing those wish to go against this law of human nature, their will, is so important. Without that individual choice we are reduced to being shuffled around as pawns in the hands of state agencies.

Updated Date: May 16, 2016 16:06 PM

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