Rediff Logo Life/Style Banner Ads Find/Feedback/Site Index
May 31, 1997


ach morning for three hours at a stretch, Anil Kumar, a tetraplegic, works at his computer. A long pencil clenched between his teeth, with a curious pecking motion of his neck, he taps out words, letter by painful letter, on the specially designed keyboard. It might be software programmes if he is feeling fresh, or it might be articles. And when his mind is tired, it would be letters to friends.

"You can take the article," he said when we asked for this article which had been rejected by a mainstream newspaper. "But leave the rejection slip with me. It's my first one -- I need it!"

Rediff On The NeT reproduces Anil Kumar's argument for legalising euthanasia:

In the past few months or so, three inconspicuous news items that appeared in the press underscored once again the controversies surrounding the acceptance of voluntary euthanasia:

* Dr Jack Kevorkian, the irrepressible 'Death Doctor', assisted his 30th suicide by aiding a 60-year-old California woman suffering from a painful spinal cord disorder to die of carbon monoxide poisoning,

* The Dalai Lama endorsing the views of the supporters of legalised euthanasia in Australia, and

* The Vatican lambasting the bill permitting doctor-assisted euthanasia in Australia's northern territory, which they characteristically described as an intolerable affront to human life.

Not long ago, our Supreme Court, in its boundless wisdom, had ruled that committing suicide is an offence under our voluminous criminal law. This ruling, needless to say, was a temporary setback for the votaries of euthanasia. The aim of writing this article is to initiate an uncomplicated and meaningful debate on the legal and moral pros and cons of the rarely discussed topic of euthanasia. I'll be using the terms 'euthanasia', 'assisted suicide' and 'mercy-killing' interchangeably.

Eight years ago, I met with a road accident and the impact broke my cervical spine. The resultant spinal cord injury has completely paralysed my body below the neck, including my hands and legs, forcing me to lead a totally dependent life. Now, I am an inmate of the Paraplegic Rehab Centre, Khadki, Pune, which is an institution of compassion for the ex-servicemen from the Army, Navy and Air Force. All the inmates are either quadriplegics or paraplegics and have to cope with varying degrees of physical disability and dependency. The inmates need round the clock care, and the quadriplegics are bathed, dressed and fed by the medical attendants.

In August 1995, the permanent employees of this centre went on a strike for about six weeks, demanding a hike in wages et al. The authorities responded reasonably well by requisitioning the services of a temporary staff and a few nursing assistants from the nearby Military Hospital. Though this response baulked the striking lot's intention of completely paralysing the functioning of the centre, the inmates had to put up with unspeakable hardships.

By striking work en masse they had endangered not only our paralysed bodies but our lives too. One dreads to imagine what would have happened, in a similar situation, to the inmates of an institution with lesser resources. It was a sad case of labour, on whom our very lives depend, conveniently forgetting the importance of compassion and humanist considerations. Our mammoth statute book seems to be armed with all conceivable laws under the sun, yet, not surprisingly, there is no law banning strikes in such institutions.

The crippling quirk of fate has severely curbed my wanderlust. However, on the few occasions I have ventured out, the sight of my decrepit body being wheeled around in a wheelchair by an attendant seemed to attract undue attention; oftentimes, the curious stares I drew from the onlookers were the kind that are generally reserved for a celebrated escapee from the local zoo than a human being. Well, I am not that ugly! The less said about the unfeigned unconcern of the society and the availability of civic facilities, or the lack of it, for the wheelchair-bound, like ramps, wide doors, etc at public places, the better. Obviously, our penny wise and pound foolish government is more interested in doling out 'fake' sops than providing the needy with 'real' facilities.

The afore-referred are but a few examples to cite as evidences to show the growing callousness of our society governed by the Charles Darwin tenet of survival of the fittest towards its handicapped members. What can a severely disabled person do when he/she is badly cornered by an unsympathetic world that is gradually forgetting its moral responsibilities? Grumble about the world's insensitivity. Grin and bear it. Little else. One can fight the encumbrances caused by severe disability, but it is impossible to fight the iniquities and hurdles heaped on them by an insensate society.

It is as abhorrent to force one to live as it is to force one to die. To stop prolonging the pain and misery, legalising euthanasia for the terminally ill, aged, infirm and people who find no purpose left in their living, is an alternative worth implementing. Such a move will be consistent with disability rights and, I might add, is in the larger interest of the society.

If we're not allowed the right to define the terms by which we want to live, or perhaps not to live, then we lose an essential quality of what defines us human. If a person can present a rational appraisal of his/her case, then why should a request to seek assisted suicide not be accorded the same respect as a request to seek medical treatment? It would be naive to assume that everyone seeking voluntary euthanasia is suffering from an impairment in judgement.

Let me now enumerate the major arguments put forward by the antagonists of legalising mercy-killing and debunk their fallacious beliefs.

An intolerable affront to human life.

One wonders where the peddlers of this spurious philanthropy hide when the employees of institutions of mercy, spurred by an implacable urge to seek social justice, strike work and put the lives of the inmates in jeopardy. A life of severe disability or illness can become a fate worse than death. The value of life should not be cheapened by extending it past the point where it is no longer treasured or desired.

Redemptive value of human suffering.

Of course, the most obnoxious argument ever against euthanasia. Only the truly insane would advocate it.

Legitimising euthanasia will somehow lead to a holocaust scenario wherein large numbers of disabled, aged and infirm are herded off into mass extermination.

This vision, in this era of information revolution, is totally preposterous. We live in a world that, unlike Nazi Germany, supports a multiplicity of views and unequivocally endorses freedom of the media.

Misuse by deviant doctors.

Let's, for a change, grant the benefit of doubt to our doctors. Mandatory safeguards like i) the onus of taking the decision on the afflicted individual and only mentally competent adults, and ii) a body of eminent counsellors to advise the individual and, if need be, oversee the administration of euthanasia. These set of rules should amply dispel the unfounded fears of those who rabidly oppose the very idea of euthanasia on the pretext that doctors would indulge in a mercy-killing spree.

By the way, isn't palliative-therapy a less than sanitised version of euthanasia? The truth is that euthanasia is already being carried out on the sly. For instance, pain relief treatments also have the effect of shortening life; the higher the pain, the higher the dosage necessary, and the more toxic the effects. At times, large doses of morphine can even shut down respiration. There would be less of an opportunity for abuse if this practice was legalised.

It is even possible that the legalisation of assisted suicide may actually enhance a person's quality of life. Says Karen Hwang, an American counselling psychologist, "Recent accounts of patients in Holland (euthanasia has been unofficially legalised there) show that the availability of legal methods to end one's life prolongs life by reassuring people that an end to the suffering will be there when needed. This is closely related to a psychological concept called locus of control. The principle is self-evident: the more control we feel we have, the better we feel about ourselves."

People with disabilities comprise a wide and diverse spectrum of religious and philosophical beliefs. Even with the legal option of ending one's unmitigated suffering, people will find stronger reasons -- ethical, religious or personal -- not to pursue this option. If we legally allow the few who choose to die quietly, we can then concentrate our energies on addressing the needs of the many who choose to live.

Since only the squeaky wheel gets the grease from our government, I've aired my views regarding one's right to live and die with dignity. Legalising euthanasia, in the long run, will usher in a social milieu in which the helpless won't be discriminated against and bullied by the 'fitter' elements of our society. Opinions on this espousal of legalising voluntary euthanasia would naturally differ and I shall not be fanatic. Yet, I strongly feel the topic of euthanasia is unlikely to go away until we accept it. So, why not accept it right now? Will our effete government grasp the nettle?

Only time will tell.


Tell us what you think of this feature