India Supreme Court saves woman’s life, but rules passive euthanasia legal
NEW DELHI, March 8, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) - The Supreme Court of India handed a victory to the doctors and nurses of a hospital caring for the life of a woman, denying the petition of a euthanasia-activist to have her killed via lethal injection. However, the ruling did say that “passive euthanasia” was permitted under India law, but through an involved legal procedure.
India’s Supreme Court rejected the petition filed by female journalist Pinki Virani for the active euthanasia or “mercy killing” of Aruna Shanbaug, who has lived in what the court described as a “persistent vegetative state” for 37 years. Aruna had been a nurse at King Edward Memorial (KEM) Hospital in Mumbai in November 1973 when she was brutally strangled and sodomized by one of the hospital’s sweepers. The traumatic ordeal had damaged both her brain stem and cervical cortex, leaving her severely brain-damaged and blind.
Virani had published a work on Shanbaug called “Aruna’s ordeal”. Claiming she was Aruna’s only friend, she petitioned the Supreme Court in 2009 to end Aruna’s suffering through euthanasia.
However, the journalist’s action was fiercely opposed by the KEM medical staff, which testified that they have taken excellent care of Aruna for 37 years, leaving not one bed sore. The dedication of the hospital’s nurses to Aruna is well-documented. During the 1980s, nurses threatened a strike over KEM administrators’ proposal to move Aruna out of the hospital in order to free up one of the beds.
“We are glad that the honourable Supreme Court has respected our job and our duty. We knew that the court would never allow murder,” said Archana Bhushan Jadhav, chief matron of the KEM hospital, according to India Today.
According to Indo-Asian News Service, India’s highest court rejected Virani’s petition, noting that her relationship with Aruna, did not rise to the level of the nurses and doctors who cared and continue to care for the disabled woman.
In fact, the Supreme Court singled out Aruna’s caregivers as examples for the whole of India.
“The whole country must learn the meaning of dedication and sacrifice from the KEM hospital staff. In her 38 years (of comatose existence), Aruna has not developed a single bed sore,” they noted.
The justices dismissed Virani’s plea for active euthanasia as impermissible under India’s constitution, noting the constitutional right-to-life in Article 21 “does not include the right to die.” But they also dismissed her argument as absurd that Aruna was “dead” because she was in a persistent vegetative state (PVS).
Dr Sanjay Narhari Oak, KEM hospital director, explained to the court, “Even when a person (patient) is incapable of any response, but is able to sustain respiration and circulation, he cannot be said to be dead.
The mere mechanical act of breathing, thus, would enable him or her to be ‘alive’,” said the ruling.
Dr Sanjay Narhari Oak, dean of KEM hospital, had testified strongly against euthanasia for Aruna, saying she was much loved by the hospital staff, including the junior nurses, reported the Deccan Times.
“Not once in this long sojourn of 37 years, anybody (at the hospital) has thought of putting an end to her so-called vegetative existence,” he said, adding later “Aruna has probably crossed 60 years of life and would one day meet her natural end.”
However, India’s justices also ruled that “passive euthanasia should be permitted in our country in certain situations,” following a strict court procedure designed to prevent “unscrupulous” individuals from getting rid of wealthy or burdensome family members.
The Supreme Court said that an application for removal of life-support systems had to be filed with the local High Court, which would then make a determination after a court-appointed panel of three doctors finishes its investigative report.
The court, however, said that its ruling would have the effect of law “until parliament makes a law on the subject”.
“Assuming that the KEM hospital staff at some future time changes its mind, in our opinion in such a situation the KEM hospital would have to apply to the Bombay High Court for approval of the decision to withdraw the life support,” the ruling further stated.
Alex Schadenberg, president of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, told LifeSiteNews that the decision is “mixed”, because the Supreme Court rejected active euthanasia, but opened the door for passive euthanasia, by lumping in the removal of basic food and fluids (through a feeding tube) with the removal of life-support systems.
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