'Every adult has the right to ignore the tenets of any and every faith, so long as it does not harm somebody else,' says Devangshu Datta.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
Does an adult have a right to end his or her life?
The answers to this question are often coloured by religious beliefs.
The big problem is that no religion takes modern medical technology into account and, therefore, every religion is critically under-informed when it comes to providing answers to 21st century life and death situations.
Modern medicine introduces options that lie somewhere between death and life. It is entirely possible, actually common, for somebody to be in a coma for an indefinite period, with physical functions run by life-support machines.
No religion deals coherently with the Schrodinger-esque situation when life and death are no longer a binary distinction.
Judeo-Islamic-Christian faith systems consider suicide to be a sin. On the other hand, Jains, Buddhists and many strains of Hinduism as well consider suicide a reasonable option under many circumstances. Sikhs appear divided on the subject, going by public debates.
Life support is an expensive process. It can present the family of the patient with a cruel dilemma.
There is often no way for patients to communicate their wishes while on life support. Indeed, the patient may no longer exist in a cognitive sense and there may seem to be absolutely no chance of recovery.
But it may be illegal to pull the plug, leading to a huge, open-ended financial drain.
It is also possible for modern medicine to pull off apparent miracles, where somebody who is severely injured, or suffering from a terrible disease, makes a recovery from the brink of death.
That can happen even when the probability of a recovery seems very low. It is also possible that the sufferer doesn't want to go through the often-painful procedures necessary to attempt recovery.
The psychological trauma in such situations is very real and I've experienced it personally.
My father went through several days in coma before he passed on. My family would have much preferred a clean, quick exit, under the circumstances.
On the other hand, one of my uncles expressly forbade his children to ever put him on life support. He died quickly as a result but a decade down the line, his sons still wonder if he would have survived had they used a ventilator.
Under such circumstances, it must be morally right to allow the patient to make a decision to end it all with dignity.
Whether that person is breaking the tenets of some faith or another is irrelevant; every adult has the right to ignore the tenets of any and every faith, so long as it does not harm somebody else.
There are further, nastier, considerations involved in allowing people the right to pull the plug and die with dignity.
Those involve inheritance. There are innumerable instances of families ill-treating elderly persons in circumstances where they stand to inherit substantial property, or just cannot be bothered to look after the old folks.
Children forcing parents to sign over property; throwing out their parents from their home; verbally and physically abusing them, etc, are all common events.
Would a law that allowed people to die with dignity open a convenient channel for the disposal of elderly and infirm people? It would.
Checks and balances against such misuse may also be very weak in practice. In that case, euthanasia would become synonymous with murder.
Presumably, these are all arguments that the Supreme Court considered before it decided that a limited form of passive euthanasia was permissible. On the whole, it seems to have made a reasonable decision.
Allowing passive euthanasia could prevent families suffering a massive financial drain if persons in coma have to be kept on life support indefinitely.
It could also give terminally-ill persons an option to exit with dignity without going through the pain and trauma of invasive surgical procedures, or chemotherapy.
The court suggested a sort of 'living will' process where checks and balances against coercive euthanasia could be introduced.
This will be the critical test of the law in practice.
If it can prevent misuse of the provision, self-willed euthanasia could enhance the quality of life by allowing for a comfortable death.