Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Supreme Court ruling on Aruna Shanbaug

This was a much-awaited verdict. The Supreme Court of India yesterday rejected writer Pinki Virani's petition seeking the euthanasia of Aruna Shanbaug. Mercy killing has always been a hotly debated issue around the world. And this case, among a few others, has kept the issue raging in India as well.

Aruna, while working as a nurse in Mumbai, was the victim of an assult and has been lying in a permanent vegetative state for the past 37 years. The crux of the apex ruling was that she is not on a life-support system, though she may be in a vegetative state.

In a landmark ruling, the court also used this occasion to legalise what is called "passive euthanasia", which is removing the life support system, but not "active euthanasia" that will mean injecting a drug or something that will lead to the death of the patient.

I think it is very good and thought-out ruling by the learned judges. Aruna is not in any sense dead. Her system is working. May be some faculties of hers aren't not working like for others. The court was right in making a difference between active and passive euthanasia. I don't think a lot of people thought the court would make a fine distinction between the two. It was a very good move by the judges to do that.

For a long time, passive euthanasia has been in practice. I know a couple of cases where the doctors told the relatives of the patients, who were brain dead, that there was no point in sustaining life artificially on a life-support system, since there was absolutely not chance of the patients ever recovering. Basically, a part of the patients' system had died. The doctors gave the option to the relatives to turn off the life-support system. And in both cases, the relatives discreetly let the doctors turn off the life-support system. And, for public information it was said that the patients died of serious internal injury and heart failure.

Now the Supreme Court has legalised passive euthanasia. But still it'sn't going to be a very easy to tell everyone that "ok, we let the patient die, by turning off the life-support system". It's a very emotive issue. What the court ruling gives is a great relief for thet doctors to pull the plug, after getting necessary consent from relatives. Because earlier, there was a slim chance of someone protesting and the issue becoming a messy thing.

Aruna's plight is too tragic to describe. But she has life within her. And, amazingly, she hasn't developed bed sores even after being bed ridden for so long. Of course, no one wants Aruna to stay this way for longer than what she has endured. But it's crossing limits to snuff whatever life she has, under the pretext of reducing her misery. One can only hope that her time to leave will come soon. But that's a decision God will have to make.

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