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WHETHER Right TO LIFE ALSO INCLUDES RIGHT TO DIE

Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab AIR 1996 SC 1257: 1996 (2) SCALE 881: (1996) 2 SCC 648: (1996) 3 SCR 697 JUDGES: J.S.    Verma, G.N. Ray, N.P. Singh, Faizan Uddin and G.T. Nanavati, JJ. Date of Decision: 21-3-1996

FACTS
The appellants Gian Kaur and her husband Harbans Singh were convicted by the Trial Court under section 306, IPC and each sentenced to six years R.I. and fine of Rs. 2,000, or, in default, further R.I for nine months, for abetting the commission of suicide by Kulwant Kaur. On appeal to the High Court, the conviction of both has been maintained but the sentence of Gian Kaur alone has been reduced to rigorous imprisonment for three years. Aggrieved thereby, they preferred appeal to the Supreme Court by special leave against their conviction and sentence.

The appellants contended that section 306, IPC is unconstitutional. The first argument advanced to challenge the constitutional validity of section 306, IPC rests on the decision in P. Rathinam v. Union of India, (1994) 3 SCC 394: AIR 1994 SC 1844, by a Bench of two learned Judges, wherein section 309, IPC has been held to be unconstitutional as violative of article 21 of the Constitution. It is urged that ‘right to die’ being included in article 21 of the Constitution as held in P. Rathinam declaring section 309, IPC to be unconstitutional, any person abetting the commission of suicide by another is merely assisting in the enforcement of the fundamental right under article 21; and, therefore, section 306, IPC penalising assisted suicide is equally violative of article 21. This argument, it is urged, is alone sufficient to declare that section 306, IPC also is unconstitutional being violative of article 21 of the Constitution.

It was contended that any person assisting the enforcement of the ‘right to die’ is merely assisting in the enforcement of the fundamental right under article 21 which cannot be penal; and section 306, IPC making that act punishable, therefore, violates article 21.

Issues
(1) Whether right to life under article 21 also includes right to die?
(2) Constitutional validity of sections 306 and 309 of the Indian Penal Code.

JUDGMENT
When a man commits suicide he has to undertake certain positive overt acts and the genesis of those acts cannot be traced to, or be included within the protection of the ‘right to life’ under article 21. The significant aspect of ‘sanctity of life’ is also not to be overlooked. Article 21 is a provision guaranteeing protection of life and personal liberty and by no stretch of imagination can ‘extinction of life’ be read to be included in ‘protection of life’. Whatever may be the philosophy of permitting a person to extinguish his life by committing suicide, it is difficult to construe article 21 to include within it the ‘right to die’ as a part of the fundamental right guaranteed therein. ‘Right to life’ is a natural right embodied in article 21 but suicide is an unnatural termination or extinction of life, and therefore, incompatible and inconsistent with the concept of ‘right to life’.

To give meaning and content to the word ‘life’ in article 21, it has been construed as life with human dignity. Any aspect of life which makes it dignified may be read into it but not that which extinguishes it and is, therefore, inconsistent with the continued existence of life resulting in effacing the right itself. The ‘right to die’, if any, is inherently inconsistent with the ‘right to life’ as is ‘death’ with ‘life’.

Protagonism of euthanasia on the view that existence in Persistent Vegetative State (PVS) is not a benefit to the patient of a terminal illness being unrelated to the principle of ‘Sanctity of life’ or the ‘right to live with dignity’ is of no assistance to determine the scope of article 21 for deciding whether the guarantee of ‘right to life’ therein includes the ‘right to die’. The ‘right to life’ including the right to live with human dignity would mean the existence of such a right up to the end of natural life. This also includes the right to a dignified life up to the point of death including a dignified procedure of death. In other words, this may include the right of a dying man to also die with dignity when his life is ebbing out. But the ‘right to die’ with dignity at the end of life is not to be confused or equated with the ‘right to die’ an unnatural death curtailing the natural span of life.

A question may arise, in the context of a dying man, who is, terminally ill or in a persistent vegetative state that he may be permitted to terminate it by a premature extinction of his life in those circumstances. This category of cases may fall within the ambit of the ‘right to die’ with dignity as a part of right to live with dignity, when death due to termination of natural life is certain and imminent and the process of natural death has commenced. These are not cases of extinguishing life but only of accelerating conclusion of the process of natural death which has already commenced. The debate even in such cases to permit physician assisted termination of life is inconclusive. It is sufficient to reiterate that the argument to support the view of permitting termination of life in such cases to reduce the period of suffering during the process of certain natural death is not available to interpret article 21 to include therein the right to curtail the natural span of life.

There is no ground to hold that section 309, IPC is constitutionally invalid. The contrary view taken in P. Rathinam on the basis of the construction made of article 21 to include therein the ‘right to die’ cannot be accepted as correct. That decision cannot be supported even on the basis of article 14. It follows that section 309, IPC is not to be treated as unconstitutional for any reason.

Section 306 enacts a distinct offence which is capable of existence independent of section 309, IPC. Section 306 prescribes punishment for ‘abetment of suicide’ while section 309 punishes ‘attempt to commit suicide’. Abetment of attempt to commit suicide is outside the purview of section 306 and it is punishable only under section 309 read with section 107, IPC. In certain other jurisdictions, even though attempt to commit suicide is not a penal offence yet the abettor is made punishable. The provision provides for the punishment of abetment of suicide as well as abetment of attempt to commit suicide. Thus, even where the punishment for attempt to commit suicide is not considered desirable, its abetment is made a penal offence. In other words, assisted suicide and assisted attempt to commit suicide are made punishable for cogent reasons in the interest of society. Such a provision is considered desirable also to prevent the danger inherent in the absence of such a penal provision.
The Supreme Court of Canada in Rodriguez v. B.C. (A.G.) 107 DLR (4th Series) 342, states as under:

“Sanctity of life, as we will see, has been understood historically as excluding freedom of choice in the self-infliction of death and certainly in the involvement of others in carrying out that choice. At the very least, no new consensus has emerged in society opposing the right of the State to regulate the involvement of others in exercising power over individuals ending their lives.”

Abetment of suicide or attempted suicide is a distinct offence which is found enacted even in the law of the countries where attempted suicide is not made punishable. Section 306, I.P.C. enacts a distinct offence which can survive independent of section 309 in the I.P.C.

HELD
Right to life does not include a right to die.
Sections 306 and 309, IPC are constitutionally valid.

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