THE CONCEPT OF EUTHANASIA: IT’S EVOLUTION AND LEGAL STATUS

Sanchita Bera

Meaning of Euthanasia

The term euthanasia can directly be translated as “easy or happy death”. This term comes from Greek wherein ‘Eu’ means good and ‘Thanatos’ means death[1]. Euthanasia is the practice of intentionally ending a life to relieve pain and suffering[2]. The British House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics defines euthanasia as “a deliberate intervention undertaken with the express intention of ending a life, to relieve intractable suffering[3]”. In the states of Netherlands and Belgium, euthanasia is seen as “the deliberate termination of the life of a person on his request by another person[4]”, while in Dutch law they do not use the term euthanasia, but in place, they provide the wider definition: “assisted suicide and termination of life on request[5]”.

Types of Euthanasia

Euthanasia has been categorized into three different types:

  1. Voluntary Euthanasia: the act of killing someone painlessly, especially to relieve suffering from an incurable illness, with their consent[6].
  2. Non-voluntary Euthanasia: the act of euthanasia is said to be non-voluntary when the decision is made by a third party, and not the person himself who is to dies[7].
  3. Involuntary Euthanasia: the act of euthanasia is said to be done without the consent of the person who is to die or against that person’s will[8].

History of Euthanasia

Euthanasia was practiced in Ancient Greek and Rome: for example, hemlock was employed as a means of hastening death on the island of Kea, a technique also employed in Marseilles. This kind of euthanasia was supported by Socrates, Plato, and Seneca the Elder in the ancient world. But Hippocrates was against the said practice, says “I will not prescribe a deadly drug to please someone, not give advice that may cause his death[9]”.

For the first time, the term ‘euthanasia’ was used by Suetonius. He describes how Emperor Augustus, experienced euthanasia as he wished for, “dying quickly and without suffering in the arms of his wife, Livia[10]”. In terms of medical context the term ‘euthanasia’ was used for the first time by Francis Bacon in the 17th Century in his work Euthanasia medica, he referred to euthanasia to mean ‘easy, painless, happy death’ and termed it as ‘euthanasia interior’[11]. In the 18th century Zedler’s Universallexikon, which is a German-language encyclopedia, highlighted the ancient meaning of euthanasia as an easy death and stated, “Euthanasia: a very gentle and quiet death, which happens without painful convulsions[12].”

The Medical Historian Karl Friedrich Heinrich Marx alleviated the concept of euthanasia as a process of death. According to him, it is the moral duty of a doctor to ease the suffering to death through encouragement, support, and mitigation with the help of medication. This was for the first time that euthanasia was brought into the medical principle and responsibility[13].

But, euthanasia has always been strongly opposed by the Judeo-Christian tradition. The scholars who belonged to the Judeo-Christian and opposed the practice were Thomas Aquinas, a Philosopher, Priest, and Doctor of Church (he said that the practice of euthanasia sat in contrast to the natural survival instincts of humans); Francois Ranchin, a French Physician and Professor of medicine and Michael Boudewijns, a Physician and Teacher followed Thomas. Other scholars opposed the views of Thomas and argued in favor of the practice of euthanasia such as John Donne in 1624 and continued the practice of euthanasia. Although there were oppositions against the practice of euthanasia, the same continued and involved the following methodologies: bleeding, suffocation and removing the patient from his/her bed and placing them on cold grounds[14].

The contemporary euthanasia debates began in the mid-1800s when the use of morphine was recommended by John Warren in 1848 to treat ‘the pains of death’. Similarly, Joseph Bullar in 1866 used chloroform, but in both cases, the drugs were not to be used to hasten deaths. In 1870, Samuel Williams, a school teacher have in a speech at the Birmingham Speculative Club in England initiated the contemporary euthanasia debate[15]. Editorials were speaking both for and against the practices of euthanasia, in the mid 18th century.  

During the Gilded Age of the United States, where both social and technological changes led the movement, debates of euthanasia surfed in sync with the modern hospital systems. Robert Ingersoll in 1894 and Felix Adler in 1891both argued favoring voluntary euthanasia, where people especially adults were suffering from chronic illnesses[16].  

Legalization of Euthanasia

Henry Hunt made the very first attempt to legalize the practice of euthanasia by introducing legislation into the General Assembly of Ohio in 1906, but the bill was rejected by 79 to 23[17]. In 1906 Assemblyman Ross Gregory introduced a euthanasia bill in the Iowa Assembly, where the scope of euthanasia was broader than the one introduced in Ohio, the bill also proposed for the imposition of penalties, but even this bill failed to pass[18]. From 1906, the debate on euthanasia intensified across the world.

In 1935 Charles Millard Killick founded the Voluntary Euthanasia Legalization Society. This society campaigned for euthanasia in Great Britain. King George V was given a mortal dose of morphine and cocaine to accelerate his death in January 1936, his death coincided with the euthanasia legislation in the House of Lords to legalize the practice of euthanasia[19].

Nazi Euthanasia Program (Action T4) was the first state-sponsored euthanasia, wherein under this program, about 300,000 mentally and physically handicapped people were killed and were termed as “mercy killings”. This program/campaign gained strength on January 14, 1940, when about 70,000 Germans were killed with gas vans at the killing centers. The concept adopted by the Nazis were in total opposition to the voluntary euthanasia concept of Anglo-Americans, who emphasized, ‘right to die/death’ as an ultimate human claim[20].

Another attempt was made by the Euthanasia Society of America on January 6, 1949, by proposing to legalize euthanasia before the New York Legislature through a petition, which was signed by 379 protestants and Jewish ministers, but ultimately the petition failed. But this petition gave rise to conflicts between the Catholic Church who were against the practice and the Euthanasia society[21].

After a lot of debates and discussions, euthanasia has been legalized in the following countries:

  1. The Netherlands was the first country to legalize euthanasia on April 1, 2002, wherein euthanasia has been termed as ‘physician-assisted suicide’.
  2. Belgium passed euthanasia legislation on May 28, 2002,
  3. Luxembourg on March 19, 2009,
  4. Colombia on December 15, 2014,
  5. Canada on June 17, 2015
  6. Spain on June 25, 2021
  7. Countries like Argentina, Australia, Chile, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Isreal, Latvia, Lithiania, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Poland, Philippines, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, UK, US, and Uruguay have legalized euthanasia, but have no separate legislation for the same.

Conclusion

The Supreme Court of India for the first time allowed passive euthanasia in the Aruna Shanbaug case, on March 7, 2018. Here, the apex court stated that Article 21, which gives every individual Right to Life, also includes the right to die. The 241st Report of the Law Commission supported passive euthanasia. But on the condition that the patient is on life support (that is PVS – Persistent Vegetative State) and it is in the best interest of the patient. India should bring out separate legislation for passive euthanasia, which will enable a stronger hold upon the practice and a more standardized procedure.


[1] Origin of Euthanasia, https://www.etymonline.com/word/euthanasia (Last Visited on May 14, 2021)

[2] Dr. G.P. Tripathi, Constitutional Law – New Challenges 497 (Central Law Publications, Allahabad, 2nd edn., 2018)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sjef Gevers, “Euthanasia: law and practice in Netherlands” 1 Health Law Section, University of Amsterdam (1996)

[5] Dr. G.P. Tripathi, Constitutional Law – New Challenges 497 (Central Law Publications, Allahabad, 2nd edn., 2018)

[6] Meaning of Voluntary Euthanasia, https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/voluntary-euthanasia (Last Visited on May 14, 2021)

[7] Meaning of Non-voluntary Euthanasia, https://euthanasia.procon.org/questions/what-is-non-voluntary-euthanasia/ (Last Visited on May 14, 2021)

[8] Dr. G.P. Tripathi, Constitutional Law – New Challenges 497 (Central Law Publications, Allahabad, 2nd edn., 2018)

[9] Dr. G.P. Tripathi, Constitutional Law – New Challenges 500 (Central Law Publications, Allahabad, 2nd edn., 2018)

[10] Euthanasia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euthanasia#cite_note-8 (Last Visited on May 14, 2021)

[11] Euthanasia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euthanasia#cite_note-8 (Last Visited on May 14, 2021)

[12] Divya Shree Nandini, “Euthanasia: Right to Life vs Right to Die” http://www.legalserviceindia.com/legal/article-3642-euthanasia-right-to-life-vs-right-to-die.html (Last Visited on May 14, 2021)

[13]  Walter Cane, “Medical Euthanasia” https://www.jstor.org/stable/24620067?seq=1 (Last Visited on May 14, 2021)

[14] Euthanasia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euthanasia#cite_note-8 (Last Visited on May 14, 2021)

[15] Euthanasia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euthanasia#cite_note-8 (Last Visited on May 14, 2021)

[16] Dr. G.P. Tripathi, Constitutional Law – New Challenges 502-503 (Central Law Publications, Allahabad, 2nd edn., 2018)

[17] Dharmendra Kumar Nehra and Pradeep Kumar, “Euthanasia: An Understanding” https://www.researchgate.net/publication/252626984_Euthanasia_An_Understanding (Last Visited on May 14, 2021)

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Dr. G.P. Tripathi, Constitutional Law – New Challenges 504 (Central Law Publications, Allahabad, 2nd edn., 2018)

[21] Ibid.

This article is authored by Sanchita Bera, pursuing LLM from The Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda. Presently, working as a contributing at The Blue Letters.

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