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Supreme Court should consider Indian senior citizens' right to die with dignity, go beyond medical reasons

In the seventies when I was in charge of the weekend edition of Indian Express called Sunday Standard, a Sikh gentleman entered the office one morning and asked to see me. He was in his late seventies and fairly fit if a little frail. We got talking, and he said that he wanted to seek the permission of the Supreme Court to allow him to die on his terms.

Having lived a life that was full and satisfying, he was now being parceled from one child to another and he found it mortifying and deeply insulting. He related how his wife had passed away and just recently he had overheard his son-in-law asking his wife when the old man’s time was up with them, and that he should shift to his son’s city.

"I just want to go with my dignity intact," he said, adding, "but I do not wish to break the law and I need this newspaper’s help".

 Supreme Court should consider Indian senior citizens right to die with dignity, go beyond medical reasons

Supreme Court of India. AP

We shared a cup of tea and he whispered conspiratorially that he thought his daughter-in-law intended to convert the garage into his room when he went to his son’s place next week, and that he did not wish to suffer that insult. "My son is weak," he said. "He will not stand up for me."

There was no regret or emotion. Just plain fact.

We tried to hire a lawyer but nothing really happened. He never got the official permission. Several years later, I was told about a family where the mother was left stranded at the airport while her son and his children flew out of the country. She sat on a bench hours waiting for the son who had told her he was going to get her ticket. A doctor at Max once told me that it was far more common than believed for grown-up children to leave their parents at a hospital and vanish. The elderly persons are often unable to offer any details of their whereabouts.

These are dimensions to assisted euthanasia or passive support for pulling the plug, that form an integral part of the Supreme Court’s decision to allow it but are not factored into the permission.

The honourable court has its heart in the right place, but it is not always the extreme case as symbolised by Aruna Shanbaug who lay in a coma for 26 years. In which year would the family have decided that it was over?

Dignity in death is not given in a nation like ours, which is currently in flux, especially with its traditional cultural bastions being battered by the advent of technology and the collapse of the larger family. The equation between children and parents are changing rapidly. There is almost no infrastructure for the elderly and the infirm. Caring for aged parents comes with very little guarantee of love now, and even when they are tolerated, it is served as an adjunct to lip service respect. Forget about sibling rivalry, in this era children take parents to court for slights, real and imagined.

It is not just a medical issue — in which a patient whose chances of making a comeback have dwindled to zero — where euthanasia is an option. Dignity crosses into the other aspects of the living. All passion spent, and ready to go, it's better to shuffle off the mortal coil than being treated like a used tissue. More of the same, day after day, there comes a point where the body starts to let you down and you do not like yourself. With treatments like chemotherapy, dialysis, etc, life becomes a regimen that promises nothing but an extension of the torture.

Are these situations of neglect and dismissal and disdain any less painful and agonising than a terminal illness? Because we have been conditioned to understand the latter, we ignore the sadness of the former. And it is happening far more than we wish to believe.

But, before it is implemented the safeguards have to be spelled out and there have to be several circles of caution. Otherwise, active euthanasia could spill into active manslaughter.

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Updated Date: Mar 10, 2018 15:45:50 IST