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How Aruna Shanbaug changed the euthanasia debate in India

Aruna Shanbaug’s life in a vegetative state for 42 years, and the Supreme Court’s rejection of a petition seeking an end to her life, made her the face of the debate on euthanasia in India.

india Updated: Mar 09, 2018 23:11 IST
Dhamini Ratnam
Dhamini Ratnam
New Delhi, Hindustan Times
Aruna Shanbaug,Euthanasia,Right to die
Nurses of Thane civil hospital pay tribute to Aruna-Shanbaug who died in May 2015 at KEM hospital. In Shanbaugh’s case, the Supreme Court permitted passive euthanasia — making a distinction from active euthanasia — saying the primary caregiver could choose whether to pursue it(HT File Photo)

In 2011, a 110-page judgment delivered by Supreme Court Justices Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra began with a couplet by Mirza Ghalib. ‘Marte hain aarzoo mein marne ki, Maut aati hai par nahin aati’ (We die in the vain hope of death/ We die, but death eludes us). They were hearing the case Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug v. Union of India and Others, and ruled that in cases of irreversible illness, and after a thorough medical evaluation, passive euthanasia should be permitted. The judgment provided strict guidelines for it, which involved clearance by a high court.

Ironically, Aruna Shanbaug, a nurse, and later patient in Mumbai’s King Edward Memorial Hospital and Seth Gordhandas Sunderdas Medical College, could not herself choose to undergo passive euthanasia.

She had been in a permanent vegetative state since 1973 after she was raped by a hospital employee Sohanlal Bhartha Walmiki. He asphyxiated her with a dog chain, and the lack of oxygen damaged her brain stem.

Shanbaug, who was 25 years old at the time of the assault, was admitted and looked after by the state government-run hospital till her demise on May 18, 2015. The nurses, her former colleagues, kept her alive for over four decades—bathing her, turning her to ensure that she wouldn’t get bedsores, and feeding her through a tube. She eventually died of a cardiac arrest brought on by pneumonia.

Pinki Virani wrote about a book on Shanbaug in 1998 titled Aruna’s Story: The True Account of a Rape and its Aftermath. Over the years, she followed her progress.

In 2009, she moved the Supreme Court through a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking to become her ‘next friend’, as Shanbaug’s kin had either died, or were unable to look after her. A next friend is appointed to take essential decisions for a person if they are unable to do so themselves and in the absence of a legal guardian.

Virani pleaded with the court that passive euthanasia be allowed for Shanbaug. The 2011 judgment, an outcome of this litigation, declared the KEM hospital staff, instead of Virani, as next friend.

The nurses, in turn, chose to not stop her treatment. Shanbaug became a symbol for many things—the rape survivor who lived on, the recipient of caregiving of the hospital nurses and doctors, the lightning rod around whom the issue of passive euthanasia was fought and won.

“I am deeply grateful to the Supreme Court for validating its own 2011 judgment and allowing living wills under very specific conditions, keeping in mind that even if there is no living will for passive euthanasia and if the patient is in an irreversible condition and death has already set in, the loved ones, or next friend can go to the doctor and do the needful, because the law allows it. There is so much guilt and societal approbation about taking such a decision,” said Virani regarding Friday’s judgment, which legalized a living will document in cases of passive euthanasia.

Friday’s SC verdict

* In a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court recognised passive euthanasia and “living will”.

* Passive euthanasia will apply only to a terminally ill person with no hope of recovery, the panel of five judges said. Active euthanasia, by administering a lethal injection, continues to be illegal in India.

* A living will is a concept where a patient can give consent that allows withdrawal of life support systems if the individual is reduced to a permanent vegetative state with no real chance of survival.

It is a type of advance directive that may be used by a person before incapacitation to outline a full range of treatment preferences or, most often, to reject treatment. A living can detail a person’s preferences for tube-feeding, artificial hydration, and pain medication when an individual cannot communicate his/her choices.

First Published: Mar 09, 2018 16:51 IST