Supreme Court Verdict Says, Decision to Deny Prolonged Treatment a Part of Right to Privacy Under the Constitution

Supreme Court Verdict Says, Decision to Deny Prolonged Treatment a Part of Right to Privacy Under the Constitution

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 Highlights:
  • The Supreme Court judges unanimously held right of privacy to be part of personal liberty that we enjoy under Article 21 of the constitution.
  • This ensures that an individual ought to be free to decide for himself/herself in critical matters without interference from others/state.
  • Critical matters include woman's freedom to terminate pregnancy, refusal to prolonged medical treatment and food consumption to name a few.
The Supreme Court upon hearing several petitions, questioned the government's apparent effort to make the unique identification number Aadhaar a must for access to state-sponsored services, taxation and other aspects of regulatory governance. A nine-judge bench was set up headed by Chief Justice JS Khehar to decide whether right to privacy can be declared as a fundamental right under the Indian Constitution.
Supreme Court Verdict Says, Decision to Deny Prolonged Treatment a Part of Right to Privacy Under the Constitution

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution:
This section of the constitution secures every Indian citizen of two fundamental rights:
  • Right to life
  • Right to personal liberty
The interpretation of Article 21 has changed over the years to include various rights like the right to know, right to live with human dignity, right to reputation, right against rape, right to healthcare and many more.

The petition and the verdict:

The Supreme Court verdict on the Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd) vs Union of India is a resounding victory for privacy. The ruling is the outcome of a petition challenging the constitutional validity of the Indian biometric identity scheme Aadhaar. The nine-judge bench unanimously endorsed the right to privacy as a fundamental right under the right to life and personal liberty of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

Highlights of the verdict:
  • Right to privacy is a fundamental right: This means that an individual can take decisions on critical matters pertaining to oneself with no interference from others or the State.
  • 'Critical matters' include:

    • A. Right to refuse prolonged treatment in case of terminally ill patients and hence the right to end life

      B. Right and freedom for women to decide on matters related to termination of pregnancy

      C. Right to consume food as per individual likes and preferences
  • However the right claimed is not absolute and is subject to reasonable restrictions. The restrictions will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Justice J Chelameswar made it clear that no legal right, including right to privacy, could be absolute. "Every right has limitations. This aspect of the matter is conceded to at the bar. Therefore, even a fundamental right to privacy has limitations. The limitations are to be identified on a case to case basis depending upon the nature of the privacy interest claimed," he said.

The verdict and its implication on Euthanasia or "Mercy Killing"

Euthanasia is termination of life of person who is terminally ill or in a permanent vegetative state. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution clearly provides for living with dignity. A person has a right to live a life with at least minimum dignity and proponents of euthanasia claim that if that standard is falling below that minimum level then a person should be given a right to end his life.

Aruna Shanbaug Case: A turning point in Indian legislation:

Aruna was a nurse at KEM Hospital when she was sexually assaulted by a ward boy on the night of November 27, 1993. The attack left Aruna paralyzed and in a vegetative state (irreversible coma). Aruna's friend Pinki Virani moved to the Supreme Court with a plea to stop KEM Hospital from force feeding Aruna. In 2011, the Supreme Court sent out a medical team to inspect Aruna's condition and a landmark judgment was passed legalizing passive euthanasia in exceptional cases. As per the guidelines passive euthanasia was the withdrawal of food or treatment that would allow the patient to live. However, passive euthanasia is more painful and results in death through agony.

Countries that have legalized Euthanasia:

The northern territory of Australia, Albania, Belgium and Netherlands were some of the few countries that legalized either euthanasia or assisted suicide very early on. Canada allows refusal of life sustaining measures but did not legalize euthanasia or assisted killing.

What are the implications of the current verdict?

The verdict is not a binding law but it provides a strong argument which can be used when the matter of euthanasia, abortion or related issues are next taken up, either legislatively or in court. This calls for bringing in laws in the Constitution regarding right to end life and also amendments in current laws like the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act.

Reference:
  1. For the Many and the Few: What a Fundamental Right to Privacy Means for India - (https:thewire.in/170988/right-to-privacy-supreme-court-2)
  2. India's Abortion Laws Need to Change and in the Pro-Choice Direction - (https:thewire.in/134182/abortion-pregnancy-law-india/)

Source: Medindia

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