42 years in vegetative state: Aruna Shanbaug and euthanasia debate

  • HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: May 18, 2015 13:45 IST

The death of Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug , the nurse who was in a vegetative state since she was brutally raped in a Mumbai hospital in November 1973, has brought the focus back on the issue of euthanasia.

Shanbaug's life in a vegetative state for the past 42 years, and the Supreme Court’s rejection of a petition seeking mercy killing for her, had made her the face of the debate on euthanasia in India.

In March 2011, the Supreme Court rejected a petition by author Pinki Virani seeking mercy killing for Shanbaug. The petition was opposed by the management and nursing staff of King Edward Memorial Hospital where Shanbaug was admitted.

Here’s a look at the issue of euthanasia, some landmark cases in India and related legislation in other countries.

Different scenarios

Active euthanasia: When medical professionals, or another person, deliberately do something that causes the patient to die.

Passive euthanasia: When the patient dies because medical professionals either don't do something necessary to keep the patient alive or when they stop doing something that is keeping the patient alive.

Physician-assisted suicide: When patient administers lethal medication himself.

In other countries

Netherlands: In April 2002, the Netherlands became the first country to legalise euthanasia and assisted suicide. Euthanasia is regulated by the Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide law. It states that euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are not punishable.

Switzerland: Assisted suicide is legal and can be performed by a non-physician. Euthanasia is illegal.

Belgium: Euthanasia was legalised in 2002

US: Active euthanasia illegal but physician-assisted dying is legal in Oregon, Washington and Montana.

Euthanasia is illegal in UK, Spain, France and Italy

Well-known cases in India

1994: In the case of P Rathinam vs Union of India, the Supreme Court said a person has the “right to die”.

1996: SC overruled 1994 verdict and held that the “right to die” is not part of “right to life” under Article 21 of the Constitution. It
also held that euthanasia is illegal.

1999: Four senior citizens filed lawsuits seeking legalisation of “assisted suicide”. 2000: Kerala high court held that voluntary termination of one’s life either by those who are frustrated or those who had achieved their life’s mission would amount to suicide.

2004: Mother of 25-year-old K Venkatesh – a patient of muscular dystrophy since the age of 10 – approached Andhra Pradesh high court but her petition was dismissed.

2005: The husband and son of a woman in coma approached Patna high court asking for her mercy killing.

2007: The Supreme Court of India legalised passive euthanasia by means of the withdrawal of life support to patients in a permanent vegetative state. The decision was part of the verdict in the case involving Aruna Shanbaug. However, the apex court noted that high courts would have to clear any "application filed by the near relatives or next friend or the doctors/hospital staff praying for permission to withdraw the life support" from a patient.

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