On Monday, the 07th of March 2011, the Supreme Court of India struck down a verdict against active euthanasia referring to the case of Mumbai nurse Aruna Shanbaug filed by writer-activist Pinky Virani. Dismissing the euthanasia plea for Aruna Shanbaug, the Supreme Court spelt out the guidelines distinguishing between active euthanasia and passive euthanasia thereby revealing its ambivalence on the issue.
Aruna Shanbaug, a former nurse at Mumbai's KEM Hospital, Parel, Mumbai who was sexually assaulted by Sohanlal Valmiki, a ward boy at the hospital on 27 November 1973. He choked her with a dog chain and sodomized her. The asphyxiation cut off oxygen supply to her brain resulting in a brain stem contusion injury and a cervical cord injury apart from leaving her cortically blind which in turn led her to lead life in a vegetative state for the past 37 years.
Aruna's case opens up the floodgates for a healthy discussion on euthanasia or mercy killing. The euthanasia debate is an extremely sensitive issue which needs to be discussed in the public domain and the Parliament and the Supreme Court should not make laws on hearing the recommendations by five or six panels. Instead, the Parliament and the Supreme Court should use cases like hers as an opportunity to spell out a clear framework under which euthanasia can be sought.
The society needs to be sensitized to the issue of euthanasia. The need of the hour is educating people at the law and what medical science has made possible in terms of prolongation of life though not necessarily of consciousness or a pain free existence which prepares us to make a decision ourselves. A considered decision by a person whose life hangs in the balance needs to be backed by medical and legal consent in cases where euthanasia is permitted. Building these principles into humane legislation is called for now.
Instinctively, we might find it unacceptable to give a person the right to decide when someone's life should end. Yet, we would just as readily accept that to keep a person endlessly alive in a vegetative state is also inhuman. The humane way of dealing with it would be to allow mercy killing but in very limited situations and under strict safeguards to ensure it cannot be misused. It should be allowed only in two types of situations: One would be allowed where the person whose life is to end is not in a position to decide and where doctors and medical experts agree that there is a no hope of ever recovering to a state where he/she can take a decision. The other situation would be where the person takes the decision himself or herself and is suffering immensely and doctors agree that there is no hope for recovery.
Aruna Shanbaug has been subjected to 37 years of indignity that now even the right to die with dignity has become as hollow as a shell in her lifeless life? What does the idea of right to life, to die with dignity or even justice mean in the context of Aruna Shanbaug? The Supreme Court needs to ask itself many big questions and not forget the most important one: if Sohanlal Valmiki, the guy who sodomized her with a dog chain was allowed to walk free after just seven years in jail, doesn't his savaged victim have the right to be set free after 37 years of incarceration far, far worse? What do you think?