Thaddeus Baklinski


Indian Hospital defends disabled woman against author’s call for euthanasia

Thaddeus Baklinski

MUMBAI, February 1, 2011 ( - Doctors at Mumbai’s King Edward Memorial (KEM) hospital are concerned for the life of Aruna Shanbaug, a former nurse at KEM who suffered serious brain damage when she was strangled and raped in 1973, and who has been cared for by hospital staff ever since.

The Indian Supreme Court ordered an investigation into Shanbaug’s condition after a journalist, who wrote a book about Shanbaug, filed a petition seeking to have hospital staff discontinue feeding her.

Journalist Pinki Virani said through her lawyer that Shanbaug had been “virtually a dead person” for the last 38 years, living in a “persistent vegetative state” and thus did “not have the standard of life guaranteed by the Indian constitution.”

Virani’s petition asked the court to instruct the hospital staff to “forthwith ensure that no food is fed” to Shanbaug, according to a report in The Independent.

“This vegetative existence devoid of any human dignity is not life at all and putting mashed food in her mouth only amounts to violation of human dignity,” she said. “The continued vegetative existence of Aruna is a violation of her right to live with dignity ... she has a right to not be in this kind of sub-human condition.”

Virani’s lawyer, Shubhangi Tuli, submitted that the case was not about euthanasia, which is illegal in India, but rather about the medical definition of death. “She cannot move, she cannot hear. She only survives because she is being fed,” the lawyer said. “We are saying this is not life as guaranteed by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.”

However, Dr. Sanjay Oak, dean of KEM hospital, disputes the claim made by Virani, saying that Shanbaug “is very much alive,” and in his affidavit filed to the court indicated that Shanbaug is not suffering, accepts food normally, responds by facial expressions and makes sounds to express her needs.

“She means a lot to KEM,” Dr. Oak told Mumbai’s DNA News. (

“She is on a liquid diet and loves listening to music. We have never subjected her to intravenous food or fed her via a tube. All these years, she hasn’t had even one bedsore. When those looking after her do not have a problem, I don’t understand why a party who has nothing to do with her needs to worry.”

“We have no moral right to terminate her life. I am certainly against euthanasia for Shanbaug,” Dr. Oak stated, and added “I call on her whenever I get time. I am there whenever she has dysentery or any other problem. She is very much alive and we have faith in the judiciary.”

Alex Schadenberg of Canada’s Euthanasia Prevention Coalition expressed grave concern over the Indian court being asked to rule on withdrawal of nourishment from Shanbaug – “who is not a family member or a friend from years before.”

“What is significant is that Shanbaug is not dying,” said Schadenberg. “She is a human person who is in an incredibly vulnerable condition. She is not requiring medical treatment, but rather she continues to live as long as she is fed.”

“Ms Virani has stated that the court needs to consider the medical definition of death,” Schadenberg observed. “If people with cognitive conditions are labeled as dead, then the meaning of life will be altered to a man-made definition. Who else will be defined as already dead?”

The anti-euthanasia activist pointed out that providing food and water to a person with cognitive disabilities “is normal care.” “It is not excessive, extraordinary, or burdensome and it is able to be done by anyone.”

Schadenberg warned that “if society decides that killing people by dehydration, which should be called euthanasia by dehydration, is acceptable, then society will have agreed that the most vulnerable in our society have lost their right to protection and may be killed by others.”

Mumbai’s King Edward Memorial Hospital contact info:

KEM Hospital
Acharya Donde Marg, Parel
Mumbai - 400012, India
Phone: 91-22-2413 6051
Fax: 91-22-2414 3435
Email: [email protected]

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