As the Australian parliament attempts to take a small step towards allowing right to die laws via Senator Bob Brown’s bill to prevent the Commonwealth from overriding territory laws, this week the highest court in the world’s second most populous country has allowed for passive euthanasia-withdrawal of life support.

The Indian Supreme Court’s momentous decision follows a similar judgment last year when Germany’s highest court ruled that withdrawing life support is no longer a criminal offence.

The Supreme Court of India’s judgment delivered on Monday concerns the tragic case of  Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug, a former nurse who was raped and bashed in 1973. Her injuries were so severe and the deterioration of her health since were such that applications have to be heard by at least two judges and they can only decide after hearing from a panel of independent doctors.

The Indian government opposed the court allowing for passive euthanasia, arguing relatives would conspire to kill off wealthy older people and that India, unlike the West, has a greater respect for the elderly. But the court disagreed, drawing the distinction between active euthanasia which exists in the Netherlands and American states such as Oregon, and what is to be considered in a case where a person is effectively in a vegetative state.

For a morally conservative society such as India the Supreme Court’s decision is a major advance and follows a similar decision in Germany last year. The Federal Court of Justice, Germany’s highest court, ruled that a lawyer who advised his client to remove her mother from life support was not guilty of a criminal offence.

Beginning with this memorpable phrase “euthanasia is one of the most perplexing issues which the courts and legislatures all over the world are facing today”, the Supreme Court of India’s 110-page judgment presents perhaps the most comprehensive and eloquent statement of the law and public policy questions surrounding the issue of the right to die published to date.

It is devoid of emotion, bias or hyperbole, a rarity in writings on this issue. Well worth a read as they say.

Peter Fray

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