Dying with dignity

Aruna Shanbaugh`s case has surely given a new direction to the debate over euthanasia.

Ritesh K Srivastava

On March 07, the Supreme Court pronounced its path-breaking judgement in the Aruna Shanbaug mercy killing case.

Writer Pinky Virani`s plea seeking the mercy killing of the KEM Hospital nurse, who was sexually assaulted by a ward boy 37 years back and pushed into a vegetative state, was categorically turned down by the SC, but it allowed passive euthanasia in select cases.

The apex court’s decision has surely given a new direction to the debate over euthanasia.

In medical parlance, administering a lethal drug to advance the death of a brain dead person or patient in a vegetative state (PVS) is called active euthanasia, which is still banned in several countries including India. Whereas, the withdrawal of life-support systems from a terminally ill or brain dead patient, whose chance of recovery is nearly impossible, is termed as passive euthanasia.

The historic judgement delivered by the apex court is significant in many ways as it not only legalised passive euthanasia under tough conditions, but also opened doors for Parliament to enact a fully competent law for dealing with such a crucial issue.

The two-member bench of the Supreme Court, which was worried over the possible misuse of passive euthanasia by the selfish and greedy relatives of a comatose patient, called for a High Court monitored mechanism for performing such procedures.
The highest court went a step further and suggested Parliament to scrap Section 309 IPC (attempt to suicide) as it has become "anachronistic in the present context, though it is constitutionally valid”.

The reason why the entire nation keenly awaited the Supreme Court decision in the case is because of the fact that there is no statutory provision for withdrawing life support system of a brain dead person in India till now.

The issue has been a taboo since long and there has been a wide-ranging debate across the globe for over a person’s right to end his life in order to get rid of his sufferings. However, only a handful of countries have passed a resolution legalising mercy killing, that too in compliance with very strict norms fixed by the highest authorities.

The Supreme Court, in my opinion, was absolutely right in rejecting Virani’s petition for a peaceful end to a life, which existed in Aruna’s brittle body, on grounds that the KEM hospital staff was taking excellent care of the lady and since she was not on life support system, there was no need to end her existence.

However, the relentless efforts made by the writer, who treats Aruna as her best friend, in highlighting the plight of PVS patients should not be overlooked as her pursuit of the case eventually prepared a solid basis for the apex court to pass such a bold order.
The Supreme Court judges, Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra, who ruled that Aruna should be allowed to live till her natural death also deserves praise from all quarters for their landmark decision.

This is true that Shanbaug is bed-ridden and in a permanent vegetative state for the last 37 years and there is absolutely no chance of her recovery. But even this does not take away her right to live till her natural death as her brain is not entirely dead. She reciprocates to food and music, a trait that tells us that she’s not a vegetable in the literal sense.

The story of Aruna Shanbaug will be incomplete without the mention of KEM staff nurses either, who are more than happy with the judgment that their beloved Aruna will now live a little longer. Their dedication, their selfless services, their extraordinary bonding with a person who is completely dependent on her, has moved the entire nation and we are, indeed, proud of them for displaying such humanity and service.

There would be many more like Aruna around us, away from the spotlight and abandoned by their families to fade into oblivion, but only a few would have the likes of a loving staff like the one at KEM hospital.

As an ordinary Indian, I feel extremely sorry for Aruna Shanbaug’s plight, for the pain and suffering has she had to undergo and for the tragedy, which ruined her best days and deprived her of the happiness and joy which she deserved.

The culprit, who pushed her to this stage, has already paid for his sins by serving 7 years of Rigorous Imprisonment. And he must be watching the sequence of events related to Aruna and, perhaps, hopefully regretting what he did to her. It is a shame he’s not in that hospital bed rather than Aruna.

At this juncture, I can only pray to God that no one ever meets the same fate as Aruna and we become more sensitive towards women, who make our lives beautiful, our world liveable. On a different note, I also feel great that by its ground-breaking judgement, the apex court has once again proved that it is the true custodian of Indian democracy and a beacon of light for our society.

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