New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Monday said a terminally ill patient can be administered “passive euthanasia” in rare cases, a major shift in a country where such acts have long been illegal.
The apex court, however, rejected a plea to end the life of a woman who was brain damaged more than 30 years ago.
Aruna Shanbaug, 60, a former nurse, suffered massive brain injuries during a brutal sexual assault in 1973, leaving her unable to talk, move or eat on her own.
Since then, she has been looked after by the medical staff at the Mumbai hospital where she worked and where she was raped.
“Passive euthanasia entails withholding of medical treatment for continuance of life,” the court said in its judgment.
Shanbaug’s care givers insist she has some level of understanding despite her injuries and is even able to indicate what food and music she enjoys through facial expressions. She has mostly been fed with a spoon since the attack, they say, though recently feeding tubes have been used.
But a journalist who has written extensively about the case insisted she is in a vegetative state and should be allowed to “die with dignity” by stopping all feeding. Journalist Pinki Virani filed the request in 1999.
“Judged by any parameter, Aruna cannot be said to be a living person and it is only on account of mashed food which is put into her mouth that there is a facade of life which is totally devoid of any human element,” Virani said in her petition. “There is not the slightest possibility of any improvement in her condition and her body lies on the bed in the KEM Hospital, Mumbai, like a dead animal, and this has been the position for the last 36 years. The prayer of the petitioner is that the respondents be directed to stop feeding Aruna, and let her die peacefully.”
But justices Markandeya Katju and Gyan Sudha Mishra agreed with Shanbaug’s doctors and nurses and said her care should continue.
The apex court in January appointed three doctors as experts to assist the bench in deciding the matter.
“If the doctors treating Aruna Shanbaug and the dean of the KEM Hospital, together acting in the best interest of the patient, feel that withholding or withdrawing life-sustaining treatments is the appropriate course of action, they should be allowed to do so, and their actions should not be considered unlawful,” the experts said in their report.
But in a break with the past, the court said that in rare cases a terminally ill patient could be administered “passive euthanasia,” if done under court supervision.
That was a first for the Indian courts, which have repeatedly denied any legal right to removing life support over the years.
The ruling said, though, that “active euthanasia,” where someone is killed with a lethal injection, remains illegal in all cases.
The judges lauded KEM staff for their “noble spirit and outstanding, exemplary and unprecedented dedication in taking care of Aruna” for so many years since she has not suffered from any bed sores or stress fractures all these years.