A balance between morality and legality weighed on the minds of the two Supreme Court judges who shaped India’s first judgment on euthanasia. Justices Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra initially differed but eventually struck a middle path, they say.
“Should Aruna Shanbaug live or die? It was one of the most difficult calls to take in my tenure as a judge. This was one judgment that could not have gone wrong. I had to get it right.” Each judge echoed the other when The Indian Express spoke to them separately.
When they started, they say, one wanted to allow the plea by Pinki Virani while the other was concerned whether the court should allow euthanasia in principle and, if it did, whether it could be done on an appeal by a “next friend”. What brought them to the “middle path”, they say, was the sight of Shanbaug’s trauma on a projector screen in the court’s hall no. 6 in March 2011.
“We saw her on the screen, lying in a comatose state, and people were asking us to deliver our verdict on her life and death. It cannot become more difficult than this as judges,” Justice Katju said from Vancouver.
Justice Misra called the situation “extraordinary”. “We judges are humans too. No other case has perhaps moved me as much as this case. It evoked sentiments in me and I had to balance them with sound legal principles,” she said. “We discussed every aspect since we knew we were going to lay down the law on euthanasia for this country. On the other hand, we also saw her as an iconic symbol for the hospital staff. She symbolised the spirit of fighting back… There was a semblance of life, so we did not order her death.”.
“However,” Justice Katju said, “we knew a lot of people were in favour of passive euthanasia and withdrawing life support to their kin could relieve them of trauma. Thus, we devised checks and balances. We ruled passive euthanasia could be allowed only after the patient’s caregivers satisfy a court that life was more painful than death.”
Each judge commended the other for sharing his or her concerns before reaching the judgment, authored by Justice Katju.