Updated: Sep 4, 2021

Euthanasia is a complex ethical issue on which everyone has an opinion but the concept gets trickier when it comes to formulating law because the question grapples with moral and ethical values unlike any other. Coming to the distinction between euthanasia and suicide, the two concepts are very closely interlinked and the dividing line between them is very thin. While passive euthanasia denotes causing the death of incurable or terminally ill patients, active euthanasia or suicide is something universally known and presently a punishable offense in most countries.


An attempt to commit suicide is a criminal offense in India, punishable with imprisonment up to one year and a fine under section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. It is an offense that is very unique, as in case someone fails, they are punished, but if they succeed, they are not since of course, a successful suicide would mean there is no one to punish. Those who abet suicide can be imprisoned for up to ten years and fined under Section 306 of IPC.


The law penalizing suicide attempts has been widely criticized over the last few decades leading to multiple challenges regarding the constitutionality of this particular section in the honorable Supreme Court and other High courts of India.

This question was first addressed by the Bombay High Court in the infamous case of Maruti Dubal v. State of Maharashtra, 1985, where a police constable tried to immolate himself outside the office of Bombay’s municipal commissioner. When the criminal charges were pressed against him, he challenged section 309 of IPC claiming that it is violative of Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution. The Court accepted the challenge and agreed that there is nothing unnatural about the desire to die. The court concluded that the Constitutional right to live includes the “right not to live” or the right to end one’s life. It held that Section 309 was ultra vires and struck it down. However, in the case in the following year, the Andhra Pradesh High Court upheld the constitutionality of section 309 of IPC. The court noted that a law punishing an attempt to suicide was an important tool in the age of hunger strikes and self-immolation threats.

Is it constitutionally permissible to penalize suicide? This question came to the picture in the Supreme Court case of P.Rathinam v. UOI, 1994. Hearing a writ petition challenging the constitutional validity of section 309, the court held that attempt to suicide implied psychological problems rather than criminal instincts. The court struck down section 309 of IPC as being void and ineffectual and held that it contravened the right to life under Article 21.

The Supreme Court’s judgment in the Rathinam case did not hold for long as in 1996 a married couple appealed against their convictions for abetting suicide under section 306 in the famous case of Gian Kaur v. the State of Punjab. They argued that since the right to die falls under Article 21 (as per Rathinam judgment), a person who helped another committed suicide would merely be facilitating the enforcement of a fundamental right, implying that section 306 of IPC which penalizes abetment to suicide, was also unconstitutional. This logic was flawed and the Supreme Court rejected the argument and overruled its earlier judgment in Rathinam. So, the constitutional validity of section 309 was held again. The Gian Kaur judgment has its significance for another reason as it opened up an opportunity to legalize euthanasia within the already existing legal framework of the country. The court made it clear that the right to life did not include the right to die, but it encompasses the ‘right to die with dignity’. In case the person is terminally ill or is in a vegetative state, the natural death process already commenced so it is possible to accelerate that process under the right to life. However, the right to die with dignity should not be confused with the right to die an unnatural death i.e suicide.

In the year 2000, two remarkable cases were filed in the High Court of Kerala where a retired octogenarian teacher felt the need to die after living that satisfactory life and having fulfilled all his duties and obligations, so he wished to ‘quit the world’ but not commit suicide. He wanted to legally end his life and donate organs to highlight the difference between ‘voluntary death’ and suicide, based on motives. This encouraged another sixty-nine-year-old school principal who made a similar demand. The courts rejected both the petitions stating that suicide is a suicide, regardless of motives.


Aruna Shanbaug was a nurse by profession at King Edward Memorial (KEM) Hospital, Mumbai. On 27th December 1973, she was raped by a hospital sweeper which led her into a condition called acute brain damage as the oxygen supply was blocked for a very long time during the whole incident. She was never able to recover from the attack and degraded to the status of a helpless patient for the rest of her remaining life. In 2009 a journalist named Pinki Virani moved the Supreme Court to seek a direction for KEM Hospital to stop feeding Aruna Shanbaug so that she could exercise her right to die with dignity. The journalist argued that the victim was bedridden for the past three decades and was leading a no quality life and there was just very little hope of her recovery, while the hospital claimed the opposite. To examine the same the Supreme Court set up a team of doctors to report Aruna’s mental and physical state. The report stated that though Aruna was in a permanent vegetative state in many respects neither brain dead nor comatose. The team concluded Aruna was not in the condition to decide so the ‘next friend’ i.e the dean of KEM Hospital could decide on her behalf as she was already abandoned by her family. The Dean unequivocally dismissed the possibility of euthanasia for Aruna and said that she should die a natural death, the Supreme Court endorsed the decision.

However, the Supreme Court chooses to go beyond its call of duty, by deciding on the larger question: should euthanasia be permissible at all in India, and if so, under what circumstances?

The court distinguished between the two forms of euthanasia i.e active and passive and outlined the difference between an ‘act’ and ‘omission’ to legalize passive euthanasia while reiterating the illegality of active euthanasia. The Aruna Shanbaug case also set up a benchmark model for cases seeking passive euthanasia. The model included appointing a team of doctors comprising a neurologist, psychiatrist, and physician to report to the court.


After the case of Aruna Shanbaug, the position on euthanasia in India today is that while the law came to the notion of recognizing euthanasia in case of physical suffering, it was held that no amount of mental suffering would justify a person to end his life. The judgment of the Supreme Court is added to the guidelines formulated by it that are meant to operate until our legislature enacts a suitable law on the particular issue. There is an urgent need to review the law prevailing currently on euthanasia and suicides in India as the Supreme Court’s judgment is used as a substitute for an enacted law should not be allowed to hold the field for too long.


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