Passive Euthanasia a Legal Reality in India

In a landmark decision in Comman Cause v. Union of India[1] , the Supreme Court declared the right to die with dignity as a constitutional right, and passed an order enabling passive euthanasia in the country.

According to report, the apex court’s five-judge bench, headed by India’s Chief Justice Dipak Misra and comprising the judges A.K. Sikri, A.M. Khanwilkar, D.Y. Chandrachud, and Ashok Bhushan, issued guidelines recognizing the “living will” of terminally ill patients.

These guidelines include who can do the will, and under what conditions can passive euthanasia be endorsed by the medical board.

The apex court further stated that, its guidelines and directives will remain in force until a law is introduced to deal with the issue.

In 2005, the court made its decision on a PIL brought by NGO Common Cause. According to the report, noted attorney Prashant Bhushan had argued in the case that if a medical specialist indicates that a patient with a terminal disease has reached a point of no return, she would have the right to deny treatment for artificial life – medically referred to as passive euthanasia – to prevent prolonged suffering. Justice Chandrachud held:

Life and death are inseparable. Every moment our bodies undergo change… life is not disconnected from death. Dying is a part of the process of living.

Earlier on 11 October 2017, the bench had reserved its judgment while observing that the right to die in peace could not be separated from the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution.

A five-judge bench in Gian Kaur vs. Punjab State[2], headed by Justice J. S. Verma in 1994, had held that both assisted suicide and euthanasia were illegal. The bench said the right to life did not include the right to die, thus overruling the bench ‘s two-judge decision in P. Rathinam vs Union of India[3] which dismissed as unconstitutional section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (attempt to commit suicide).

In the case of Gian Kaur, the supreme court held that Article 21 speaks of life with dignity, and only aspects of life that make it more dignified may be read into this article, thereby pointing out that the right to die was incompatible with this article.

However, later in Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug vs Union Of India[4] , the Supreme Court in March 2011 held that, in exceptional circumstances and under strict apex court monitoring, passive euthanasia could be given a nod.

Aruna Shanbaug had been in a vegetative state since 1973, and the social activist, journalist and writer Pinki Virani had filed a written petition on her behalf claiming that her constitutionally guaranteed right to life had been violated.

The SC was of the opinion that such a decision about an individual ‘s death could not be left to the discretion of the patient’s relatives or the ‘next friend’ alone – like the nursing staff in the case of Shanbaug. At the time, the Center opposed recognition of ‘living will’ and said consent to remove a patient’s artificial support system may not be an informed choice. The decision might stem from a lack of medical advances in awareness.

How different active euthanasia from passive euthanasia is that in the former, an act causes death – for instance, a person is killed by being given an overdose of pain killers. Death is carried by omission in passive euthanasia

In other words, not doing any medical intervention to save the life of the person.

Euthanasia is considered to be the only viable option when all life-care interventions fail to ensure a better life for terminally ill patients or someone in a vegetative condition.

A living will is a written document enabling a patient to provide advance guidance about the medical care to be given when he / she becomes terminally ill or is no longer able to provide informed consent, including termination of life support if a medical board determines that all life-saving medical options have been exhausted.

Global euthanasia and regulations relating to suicides

In April 2002 the Netherlands was the first country to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide. The country had issued strict guidelines and conditions, including that “the patient must endure intolerable pain, their disease must be incurable, and the patient’s claim must be made in” full consciousness

In the same year Belgium quickly followed a law allowing euthanasia. Although assisted suicide is not listed in the law, “doctors will help patients end their lives when they openly express a wish to die because they experience intolerable and insupportable pain,”.

Although euthanasia remains illegal in the US, doctors are allowed to prescribe lethal doses of medication to terminally ill in five states in the world. About 300 terminally ill Patients were administered lethal drugs in 2013, and nearly 230 people died as a result of taking them.


The passive euthanasia idea is very controversial and poses several complex political, economic, educational, scientific, legal, and religious questions. There are generally two classes that are established concerning passive euthanasia. The first is the ethnic community that does not accept the right to die and insists that life is a divine gift.

The second relates to the consent provision. The willingness of terminally ill patients to give informed consent for killing themselves is frequently challenged. There have been various movements in the past relating to euthanasia some for its assistance and some for its removal. However, in favor of euthanasia, rules have been laid down taking into account people’s interests. While this idea is contradictory to religious values, it has been seen as beneficial to society. There’s a conflict between law and religion in that respect. Law prevails over faith in cases of unfair and unwarranted practices.

This is also a decision in the right direction. Many with chronic illnesses are frequently exposed to constant pain and suffering, as well as conditions where there is no remedy but only medicine and care that only prolongs life. Denying them the right to die is extending their misery in a dignified manner. The court is also correct to recognize the Right to Die with Dignity as a Constitutional Right because it will help to alleviate the hardships of those suffering from debilitating illnesses and they would be able to die with dignity.



[1]  AIR 2011 SC 1290

[2] 1996 AIR 946

[3] 1994 AIR 1844

[4] (2011) 4 SCC 454

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