Content Warning– Sensitive topics have been mentioned, including rape, incest, abortion and death.
In times of life and death, we often find lives at the mercy of medical experts. Seldom doctors are left at the crossroads of their judgement while contending between saving lives and following protocol. Furthermore, they are ever so often liable to the families, near and dear ones of patients. Conversely, fighting for human rights, time and again, patients are victimised by unforgiving medical law. From terminating the unborn to terminating life for specific reasons, what are the limitations on human life? This article enunciates a few violations and limitations to the right to life: abortion and euthanasia.
Abortion is defined as the termination of a pregnancy by the removal or expulsion of an embryo or fetus. It is a significant component of an individual’s health care. Just like every other patient, a pregnant being has the right to privacy, dignity, respect, and support for or against abortion.
Recorded evidence of abortion dates back to the 16th century BCE when non-surgical, natural methods of abortion were practised. These included strenuous physical activities like climbing and weightlifting. Fasting and bloodletting were also performed.
As the modern era came into being, abortion after ‘quickening’ was considered a crime. The belief spread wide and large through Europe and America. Abortion in secret was prevalent in Colonial America because it was against the law of premarital sex.
In 1973, the Roe v Wade Supreme Court case in the US ruled that a woman could choose abortion, providing a framework under “the right to privacy.” Since then, people across different countries have protested for their rights to privacy and abortion. Currently, citizens of Poland and Scotland have taken the streets to voice their cries for abortion.
The health safety of an individual and their fetus needs to be given utmost attention while opting for abortion. A pregnant individual is their own person before they are a to-be-parent. Pregnancy invariably affects the pregnant person—from their education to employment and sometimes family support, individuals seek their rights to freedom to act.
The right over one’s own body is a fundamental moral right that every human has over themselves. For a person carrying a fetus, the fetus is a part of their body. And by all means, they have the right to make decisions about their body.
Some may also argue that not being given the opportunity to choose may be considered gender inequality. Not only would a person be forced to give birth, but they would also have to support the child for years to come, which, depending upon the parents’ situation, cannot always happen.
Sometimes abortion is a necessity when there’s an occurrence of “contraceptive failure, rape, incest, intimate partner violence, fetal impairment, illness during pregnancy, or exposure to a teratogenic medication.”
There are, however, risks to abortion depending on the gestational stage. Complications to internal organs of the body including incomplete abortion, blood clots in the uterus, heavy internal bleeding, cut or torn cervix, and consequences on future childbearing.
Abortion in India was legalized in 1971 under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1974, permitting abortion until 20 weeks of pregnancy. After the MTP act amendment in 2021, abortion will be allowed until 24 weeks of pregnancy.
Abortion in India is allowed when the woman or child’s (mental or physical) health is at risk, the pregnancy was caused due to rape, or due to a failure of contraceptives. Only a registered medical practitioner may permit abortion.
Euthanasia refers to the act of intentionally ending the life of a patient by a health care practitioner through medical means at that patient’s explicit request. Physician-assisted suicide (PAS) involves the provision or prescribing of drugs by a health care practitioner for a patient to end their own life.
Some of the ethical arguments against euthanasia are that it creates an environment in which some lives—mainly those of the disabled or sick—are considered to be worth less than other lives. Others say it reduces the respect society as a whole has for human life.
The discussion about euthanasia began in the 20th century with the increase of organisations related to the right-to-die. The discussion around the issues restarted with a legal case in the Netherlands in 1973 involving a physician who administered a lethal injection to his mother at her request and was subsequently given a light sentence. The Netherlands went on to become the first country to legalise euthanasia in 2002.
Over the years, more countries have legalised euthanasia or some form of it. In many countries, there is a distinction between euthanasia and assisted suicide. Richard Huxtable, a professor of medical ethics and law at the University of Bristol, says, “The main difference between euthanasia and assisted suicide is who performs the final, fatal act”. When the “final deed” is carried out by someone other than the individual, then it is called euthanasia, but if it is done on the orders of the individual, then it is called “voluntary euthanasia”. On the other hand, assisted suicide is when the “final deed” is done by the individual themselves.
There is a steady increase in the number of countries that have started to legalise euthanasia or assisted suicide, with a set of requirements or conditions under which it can be requested or carried out.
Under Indian law, euthanasia is a crime. Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) deals with the attempt to commit suicide, and Section 306 of the IPC deals with abetment of suicide, both of which are punishable actions. Only individuals who are brain dead and on life support can be taken off of life support with the consent of family members.
In March of 2011, the Supreme Court passed a landmark judgement that allowed passive euthanasia. Aruna Shaunbag had been lying in a Mumbai hospital for 37 years in a vegetative state. The plea for her mercy killing was refused. A two-judge bench set strict guidelines under which passive euthanasia should be legalised under the monitoring of the high court. The court also stated that family members such as parents, spouses, or close relatives of the patient could submit a plea to the court, and a bench would be constituted to take a decision along with the advice of three renowned doctors appointed by the bench.
While most global agencies still believe in giving the best medical care as can be provided within the rules and regulations, there is a growing population of individuals around the world who have expressed the desire to make decisions that allow them bodily autonomy without the limitations of governmental laws. To this date the Constitution of WHO (1946) visualises “The highest attainable standard of health as a fundamental right of every human being,” any violation of human health is subject to the law.
Sources: The Guardian, BBC, Wikipedia, WHO, NCBI
Image Sources: Bloomberg.com, Latest Laws.com
Written by Cynthia Maria Dsouza and Vaishnavi Karkare for MTTN
Edited by Pahal Duggal for MTTN
Featured Image by RCNi