Mercy killing evokes debate
Mercy killing is legal only in Belgium, Luxemburg, The Netherlands, Switzerland, the US state of Oregon and Thailand.
Recently, a prominent daily carried a story about an ex-Air Force personnel who, after being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy (MD) and having lived for several years with this progressive disability had been reduced to penury. The news report went on to say that tired of his existence, he was petitioning the high court of Andhra Pradesh for mercy killing or euthanasia. It is not the first time that someone has gone to court with such as petition in India. However, the report sent alarm bells ringing through my mind — for in this case, it was a person with disability (PWD).
Even if we go by conservative estimates that 7-10 per cent of India’s population is disabled, approximately 7-10 million, an overwhelming majority of this population live in distressed circumstances. According to the Indian Association of Muscular Dystrophy, there are 8,000 patients with MD living in Andhra Pradesh and about four lakh in India. Besides, there are lakhs of people with spinal cord injury — who are in similar distress as those with MD — elderly PWDs and those with terminal ailments like HIV/AIDS or cancer. The demand for mercy killing is more a symptom than the real issue.
At this point, it might be pertinent to briefly understand mercy killing in the Indian context, before arriving at a conclusion. Mercy killing is defined as “the intentional termination of the life of one human being by another”. This could be done either through a lethal injection or withdrawal of the life support system or medication. Mercy killing is legal in only six countries — namely Belgium, Luxemburg, The Netherlands, Switzerland, the US state of Oregon and Thailand.
A discussion on mercy killing invariably evokes an impassioned debate as the issue has no easy answers and is ridden with ethical and religious concerns. The issue takes on an additional complexity when it involves PWDs, who are already socially, economically, politically and culturally marginalised.
The Indian Constitution does not consider the “Right to Die” as a fundamental right. However, for the first time in 1987, in the State of Maharashtra vs Maruti Shripathi Dubal case, the judges at the Bombay High Court felt that the desire to die is merely uncommon but not unnatural. They listed several circumstances in which people may wish to end their lives, such as disease, unbearable condition of living, if they have a deep sense of shame or disenchantment with life. This being said there have also been many instances where judges have simply overruled the plea of the right to die. The most recent incident being that of 25-year-old Venkatesh, who petitioned the Andhra Pradesh high court in 2004, seeking mercy killing while on life-support at a Hyderabad hospital. Venkatesh too was suffering from MD.
People with terminal illness like MD; cancer would need homes where they can live out the last few days of their lives, with adequate medical attention, emotional support and dignity. But to dehumanise a person such that they demand to end their life in advance is indicative of nothing less than a human rights violation.
(The writer is a member of DisAbilityFirst, an advocacy group)
The above article appeared in the Panorama section of the Deccan Herald (Bangalore Edition) on 24th July 2008 and can be accessed at the link below