The Supreme Court on Monday dismissed writer Pinky Virani’s euthanasia plea for comatose sodomy victim Aruna Shanbaug but laid down certain guidelines for mercy killing which it said will hold till the Parliament formulates a law.
The court dismissed Virani’s plea because it held she is not the ‘next friend’ of the victim but the staff of KEM Hospital in Mumbai were. The staff of KEM Hospital were opposed to allowing Shanbaug die because they have looked after her with dedication for the last 37 years.
The court,however,said passive euthanasia ‘under exceptional conditions’ should be allowed.
A Bench of Justices Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra said passive euthanasia would occur when medical treatment is withheld or withdrawn leading to the death of a terminally ill person.
In such cases,a doctor does not administer a substance or any treatment meant to deliberately end a persons life. Instead,a doctor will agree to withdraw medical treatment when it is clear that a person will not recover from a terminal illness.
The justices said passive euthanasia can be voluntary and non-voluntary. It is voluntary if the patient requests mercy killing,the court said. Non-voluntary passive euthanasia is that of Shanbaug’s case when the patient is incompetent to decide for herself. In such cases,the decision has to be taken by a surrogate,a proxy or family or by a panel of doctors,the court ruled.
Saying this,the apex court dismissed Virani’s plea on the basis that she is not the ‘next friend’ of Aruna Shanbaug but upheld the right-to-live plea by the KEM staff.
Justices said facts and circumstances of the case,medical evidence and other material suggest the victim need not be subjected to euthanasia.
The court also said its observation on allowing passive euthanasia will hold till Parliament lays down definitive guidelines for euthanasia.
The court also said the plea for passive euthanasia must be vetted by the High Court of the state concerned. It should have the permission of relatives and the decision must also be endorsed by a panel of doctors.
The court lauded the efforts of the KEM staff who have been taking care of her day and night for 37 years without allowing a single bedsore to surface. The court called his care iconic.
The court said ‘active euthanasia’ is not to be allowed at all in which case a lethal drug is administered leading to the death of a person.
Shanbaug,now 60,has been in Ward 4 of the civic-run KEM hospital since November 23,1973,when she was attacked and sodomised by a ward boy at the hospital who had a personal grudge against her. She had just finished her shift that night and was preparing to go home. The attack left Shanbaug paralysed; she also lost her ability to speak. The case sparked off a strike of nurses in Bombay who began demanding better working conditions.
Over the last four years,all of Shanbaugs batchmates have retired and moved on. But taking care of Shanbaug has more or less become institutionalised at the hospital. Shanbaugs family abandoned her,but the staff of KEM stepped in.
KEM nurses say that Shanbaug is conscious and aware and able to respond partially,especially when she is fed fish. We take turns to look after her over three shifts in the ward,a nurse said.
Aruna,who is now nearly 60-years-old,slipped into coma after a brutal attack on her at Mumbai’s King Edward Memorial Hospital by a staffer on November 27,1973.
The plea for Aruna’s mercy killing had been made by writer Pink Virani,who had told the court in her petition that the nurse slipped into coma after she was attacked by a sweeper who wrapped a dog chain around her neck and yanked the victim with it.
According to the petition,he had tried to rape the victim but finding that she was menstruating,indulged in anal sex. To immobilise her during this act,he twisted the chain around her neck and fled the scene after the committing the heinous offence,it had said.
Virani had said that due to strangulation by the chain,the supply of oxygen to the brain stopped and the cortex got damaged. She also had brain stem contusion injury associated with cervical cord injury.
According to the petitioner,in the last 37 years after the incident,Aruna has become “featherweight” and her bones are brittle. She is prone to bed sores.
Her wrists are twisted inward,teeth decayed and she can only be given mashed food on which she survives,Virani had said,adding that Aruna is in a persistent vegetative state,her brain is virtually dead and she is oblivious to the outside world.
She can neither see nor hear anything nor can she express herself or communicate in any manner,whatsoever,she had said in her plea for mercy killing.
The Bench had reserved its verdict on the plea for subjecting Aruna to mercy killing after hearing detailed arguments by various parties on the question of allowing euthanasia.
Several counsel who made submissions on the controversial issue for permitting mercy killing included Attorney General G E Vahanvati,amicus curiae T R Andhyarujina,Ballabh Sisodia for the hospital and Shekhar Naphade appearing for the petitioner and Virani.
During the arguments,the government had taken the stand that there is no provision either under the statute or the Constitution to permit euthanasia.
Sisodia had opposed the plea contending that the hospital staff,particularly the nurses and the doctors,have been taking “dedicated care” of Aruna for the past 37 years and they were opposed to the plea for her killing.