With right to live, arguing for the right to die

Assisted dying is not the same as suicide – it is not an act of desperation, it is carried out with the knowledge and support of family or friends, and it is done when it is clear that little or no quality is left in the person’s life

Vidya HebleUpdated: Thursday, September 15, 2022, 10:24 AM IST
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Most news stories about the death of famed film director Jean-Luc Godard on Tuesday in Switzerland at the age of 91 did not play up one significant point – that his was an assisted death, carried out with the help of Dignitas, the Switzerland-based organisation. Assisted suicide, or voluntary euthanasia as some call it, is a fraught subject. Most people react to the idea with shock, almost immediately rejecting it as unnatural, against “god's will”, and similar concepts.

Yet, is it so unnatural? When people die of disease, old age or suddenly in an accident, do we not accept these as the same “god's will”? Of course, after the fact we have no choice but to accept it, and deal with grief and loss. But most of us baulk at accepting death before it occurs. Even talking about dying is seen as a bad omen, or having negative thoughts.

Hence, the thought of someone planning their own death is practically impossible for most people to comprehend. Often, it is conflated with suicide which is unplanned, usually sudden, usually the result of mental and/or physical torment. But assisted dying is different – it is not an act of desperation, it is carried out with the knowledge and support of family or friends, and it is done when it is clear that little or no quality is left in the person’s life. The organisation Dignitas, in fact, has a fairly extensive set of procedures that applicants have to go through before they can reach their goal in Switzerland. The organisation's own physicians carry out checks as well, and the entire cost can amount to several lakhs in rupees, not counting the cost of travel to Switzerland and stay there.

The issue was in the news in India last month, when a woman from Bengaluru moved the Delhi High Court to stop her friend from travelling to Switzerland as she did not want him to end his life with a physician's assistance there. The man was suffering Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and the petitioner's contention was that he was not in extremis. He was, however, mostly bed-bound, able to walk just a few steps inside his home. For him, this was not a life worth living. The woman's petition reportedly ended up causing him further distress, and she eventually withdrew it for this reason. Was she wrong to file the petition? For her, contemplating her friend's planned demise was painful. However, she could not possibly have known the much greater pain continuing to live was causing him.

The Supreme Court of India has taken a step towards recognising this pain, in a judgment passed in March 2018 allowing passive euthanasia for terminally ill patients. The court said a living will should be made by the patient, and laid down guidelines for the execution of the will and other procedures. Justice DY Chandrachud's remark in that case is particularly pertinent: “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.”

This is not an alien concept at all for us in India. In Jainism, the practice of sallekhana (also known as samlehna, santhara, samadhi-marana or sanyasana-marana) is accepted as a supplementary vow to the ethical code of conduct. Sometimes this hits the headlines, as when a girl undertook the practice and fasted until death in 2016. But every year 200 or more people, most of them monks, end their lives in this way. Sallekhana, the encyclopaedia tells us, is always voluntary, undertaken after public declaration, and never assisted with any chemicals or tools. The fasting causes thinning away of the body by withdrawing — by choice — food and water to oneself, with full knowledge of colleagues and one's spiritual counsellor. For a successful sallekhana, the death must be with “pure means” (ie, no violence), voluntary, planned, undertaken with calmness, peace and joy where the person agrees to scour out the body while focusing his or her mind on spiritual matters. This sounds almost inviting, but it definitely calls for a great deal of will power and strength of mind, so it is not for the faint-hearted.

A similar idea among the Japanese was explored in the acclaimed 1958 film The Song Of Narayama (Narayamabushi-ko), where the extremely aged protagonist persuades her son to take her to the top of the mountain Narayama, so she can starve to death there. Alien as this sounds, an old couple closer home — in Mumbai — had petitioned the President of India in 2018 for permission for “active euthanasia”. They were not ill, but they feared becoming incapacitated as they grew older (the husband was 86 at the time, the wife, 79). In their petition they said they feared becoming terminally ill and being unable to contribute to society. They had had no children by choice, and did not want others to be liable for their condition later, as they put it. The petition is probably lurking in the President's 'pending' stack of files, much like life itself, which is always pending death.

Vidya Heble is the Edit page editor

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