India’s Supreme Court has called for a national debate on euthanasia after reviewing a plea from a lobby group asking it to legalize mercy killings.
Court judges on Wednesday issued notice to all state governments seeking their opinions on the issue.
The state governments were asked to respond within eight weeks.
The federal government opposes legalizing mercy killings and says the judiciary does not have the right to introduce a law that would give citizens the right to die.
Only parliament or state legislature can make such a law, it says.
The court was considering a petition filed by Common Cause, a citizen's lobbying organization. The five-judge bench issued the notice to consult state governments after hearing arguments from Common Cause lawyer Prashant Bhushan and the Attorney-General Mukul Rohatgi.
Observers say the court is stalling on making a decision on the highly contentious issue.
“[The notice] is a delaying tactic … India has 29 states ruled by different parties and under different ideologies, therefore a consensus is near impossible," an independent lawyer told ucanews.com on condition of anonymity.
The federal government contends that mercy killing cannot be legalized, as it is a form of suicide.
"Suicide is an offense. It is a matter for the legislature to decide," the attorney-general told the court.
Common Cause lawyer Bhushan argued that people with advanced terminal diseases and who are likely to enter a permanent vegetative state have the right to execute a “living will” to refuse treatment and die.
The court had earlier defined passive euthanasia as withdrawal of medical treatment with the deliberate intention to hasten a terminally ill patient's death.
"Euthanasia needs to be ensured because without it, patients in a state of terminal illness are deprived of their right to refuse cruel and unwanted medical treatment," Bhushan told reporters.
Rohtagi said the right-to-die issue not only had constitutional implications but also moral, religious and social ones.
He said having the right to die merely because of pain and suffering would not be in the interest of society.
If legalized, euthanasia would be misused around the country, he argued.