The Right to Die in India (and everywhere)

A man named K. Venkatesh recently died in a hospital in India. He was severely ill with muscular distrophy, and had requested an assisted suicide. He was denied, but this past week he died anyway from his disease.

The case has sparked a debate about the Right to Die in India -- the first time I can remember that the issue has gotten such national attention there. As a left-leaning youngster in the U.S., I remember similar debates that occurred here, particularly the trial of a 'Doctor Death' -- I've forgotten his real name -- who was tried for homicide for providing euthanasia.

Here is an editorial from The Times of India, which uses what I find to be rather vague, sentimental arguments to support the Right to Die.

Venkatesh, a 25-year-old muscular dystrophia patient, wanted to be granted the right to die. He sought to enforce the right so that he could donate organs before they were affected by his illness. The plea was rejected a day before his death by the Andhra Pradesh high court. The court ruled that the petition sought to violate the Transplantation of Human Organs Act, 1995, which had no provisions that allowed individuals to donate organs before they were brain dead. The court's caution in this case is understandable considering the implications of easing restrictions in organ transplant. However, the order indirectly reiterated the stated legal position that an individual had no right to end his life voluntarily. Our Constitution guarantees the right to life. The right to life is incomplete without the right to death. The karma of life is a wheel that is completed only when birth is complemented by death. The right to die is built into the right to live. The state has every obligation to legally ensure the protection of life; protection in this case limited to prevention of homicide. However, the Indian state has expanded its territory to be the arbiter even in cases of suicide and euthanasia. Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code holds suicide a criminal act while euthanasia or mercy killing has been left open for debate.(link)

I don't find these arguments especially compelling. And the part about karma and the wheel of life, well... are they serious? It may be true, but it has nothing to do with rights. The very same arguments could actually be used against the right to die -- people should be required to live out the natural course of their lives.

So let me reframe the question. Like many people, I've always vaguely supported the right to die, but why? Mainly on the principle that Individual Rights trumps the state's interest in keeping you alive against your wishes -- for the Greater Common Good. But the Individual Rights argument, euthanasia is the same as suicide; really what is championed is the legalization of suicide. (Which many liberals and libertarians do support)

And on that subject, I'm not so sure. It seems to me that suicide probably ought to remain illegal, because many people who attempt it (especially young people) are either a) not fully in charge of their faculties, b) treatable patients with one or another form of mental illness, and c) would probably thank us later for resisting their attempt. These aren't strong arguments (it can still be argued that suicide "doesn't hurt anyone but the doer"), but they are good enough for me. The state should do everything it can to discourage people from committing suicide. On the other hand, it shouldn't penalize people who attempt it and fail. If the 'crime' of suicide is punished, you run the risk of the old totalitarian joke: he tried to commit suicide, and failed, so they executed him.

So perhaps suicide should remain generally illegal (but not punishable), and there should just be an exception granted to people who are terminally ill and in excruciating pain (like L. Venkatesh). But doctors often disagree on what defines terminal illness. And while there will certainly be some cases where death is inevitable, there will be many cases where death is fairly far off in the future, and there is some hope, however small. Moreover, critics can object that there is always the possibility of a medical miracle -- that 1 in 10,000 chance that a patient will recover -- so isn't it worth keeping the patient alive in case that happens? Opening up the Right to Die as an exception in the law against suicide would only work if the likelihood of death were overwhelmingly high, and if the "miracle cure" argument were thrown out on a cost/benefit basis.

Thus, it seems like a viable argument to say that Euthanasia should remain genrally illegal because of the confusion that could ensue if it were legalized. This is the status quo, and the suffering of people like Venkatesh is unfortunate, but perhaps justified because it does serve the greater common good.

On the other hand, if I could be convinced that doctors could specify the cases where euthanasia is the best option with upwards of 99% certainty (this would require a classification of terminal illnesses and probably the statistical ascertainment of survivability), I could be persuaded otherwise.