In a detailed landmark judgment delivered on 06/02/2015, a bench of 9 judges of the Supreme Court of Canada overturned a ban on ‘physician-assisted suicide’ reversing its 1993 decision where by a majority of 5:4 Sec 241(b) of the Criminal Code, R.S.C. 1985 was upheld to decline such legalization. This judgment places Canada in the league of a handful of western countries where the practice of mercy killing is legal; namely the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Colombia.. Interestingly, the sole judge left on the court from that time is Beverley McLachlin, now chief justice, and notably she was in the dissent last time. Also, the Canadian Parliament has previously rejected several attempts to legalize physician-assisted suicide through bills brought by its members.
The judgment said :
“ We conclude that the prohibition on physician-assisted dying is void insofar as it deprives a competent adult of such assistance where (1) the person affected clearly consents to the termination of life; and (2) the person has a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition. We therefore allow the appeal.”
The matter pertained to a case of two women with debilitating illnesses who have since died. Gloria Taylor, an Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) patient and activist, who joined the right to die lawsuit in 2011, died of her illness in 2012. ALS is informally called Lou Gehrig's disease. The family of the second woman, Kay Carter, who traveled to Switzerland to end her life, was also a plaintiff. Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, along with a handful of other European countries and a few US states. The decision is to take effect in 12 months.
The euthanasia debates in India till now circled around the doctrine of volenti non fit injuria, Gian Kaur’s judgment on Right to Die and the reference to House of Lords’ decision in Airedale case, various judgments on Art 21 for right to live with dignity, Sec. 87, 304, 306, 309, exception 5 to Sec 300 of IPC, Aruna Shaunbag’s decision of 2011 which allowed passive euthanasia, the reference made to a bench of 5 judges by Sathasivam CJ in 2014 for settlement of this issue which is since pending, 241st Law Report by the Law Commission and the recent announcement by the government to curb Sec. 309.
This beautifully crafted judgment if read into Indian scenario describes the need of settlement of this issue for once and for all. In the last hearing before the Constitutional Bench headed by Chief Justice Lodha, it was observed orally that the issue demands an in depth analysis and whether all States, NGO’s and Humar Right Activists should be allowed to make submissions or not should be decided first. However due to superannuation of Justice Lodha, the issue still remains in limbo. For laying down the law and clearing the clouds of doubt, a constitutional bench should sit and after detailed examination of arguments to and fro, decide the law.