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India: Euthanasia Debate Re-kindled

The Indian society is buzzing with mixed emotions after the Supreme Court of India rejected the mercy killing petition filed by journalist Pinki Virani on behalf of Aruna Shanbaug who has been cared for and kept alive for 37 years at the KEM hospital, Mumbai, India.

Who is Aruna Shanbaug?

Widely used picture of Aruna Shanbaug

Way back in 1973,  Aruna Shanbaug was a 25yr old pretty, bubbly nurse, working in Mumbai's KEM hospital and dreaming of marrying her fiance – a young doctor colleague. Then one night her world was shattered when a ward boy, who resented being castigated by Aruna for his misdemeanors, decided to extract a cold blooded revenge.  He attacked her one night in the hospital basement as she was changing out of her uniform before going home. He tied a dog chain round her neck, choking her, cutting off the blood supply to her brain and sodomized her. Then he left her lying there and went away, but not before robbing her of her earrings.

Next day, Aruna was discovered by a cleaner, unconscious, lying in a pool of blood. It was then realised that the assault and resulting asphyxiation with the dog chain had left her cortically blind, speechless  and paralysed due to a brain stem and cervical cord injury. The ward boy got a 7 ear sentence for attempted murder and robbery. He was not tried for rape as the matter of anal rape was then concealed at the time, perhaps fearing social repercussions on the victim.

Since then, Aruna Shanbaug has been lying in a ‘vegetative state’ in a ward at the KEM hospital. Her own family gave up on her and for these 37 years, she has been kept alive and cared for by the nurses at the KEM hospital. She faded from public memory untill 1998, when journalist Pinki Virani wrote ‘Aruna's Story’, a book that brought her back into the public consciousness.

The issue being debated today

Pinki Virani, on Aruna's behalf, filed a plea with the Apex Court to end Aruna's life and requested that the hospital be asked to stop force-feeding Aruna. The plea was admitted in the Supreme Court in December 2009. The plea was opposed strongly by the doctors and nurses at the KEM hospital as well the Indian government.

On 7th March, 2011, the Supreme Court after a lot of deliberation, rejected the plea of mercy killing for Aruna but, in what is being seen as a landmark ruling, allowed for passive euthanasia in exceptional circumstances, to be decided by High Courts on a case to case basis.

The case has rekindled the debate on euthanasia in the Indian society, with people expressing mixed reactions to the Aruna Shanbaug verdict. Questions have been raised as to whom a mercy killing really benefits. Also, there is a lot of anger on knowing that the perpetrator of the crime got just 7years in jail while his victim got 37years of agony and counting. The conversations have also gathered momentum online with netizens discussing it on Twitter, Facebook, blogs and forums.

Most of the reactions and conversations were highly emotion-laden. Pinki Virani, for her part, drew a lot of flak from a section of netizens for entering such a plea in the first place. Those opposing her argued that since she was neither a blood relative nor a long-term caregiver, she had no right to file a mercy killing plea on behalf of Aruna, that too a request to stop her feeding.

Rajanna Venkatraman writes on his blog:

Pinki Virani, a writer who wrote Aruna's story filed a writ petition in supreme court to stop feeding Aruna. I do not understand the fact. Why should Pinki move to the court to stop feeding Aruna? Isnt it better that Aruna is euthanised in a much better way using the medicines available. Why should we torture her more and make her emaciated and undergo the pain of hunger when she cannot even express it? The nurses who feed her said that Aruna likes non veg food and they understood it from her gestures. Why should she be killed? Do we, for sure, know that Aruna wants to die?

Blogger unfairandlovely comments on her blog

if Aruna has a “friend”, it is not Pinki Virani who has so conveniently appropriated the tag for herself, but this group of tireless, selfless people [her caregivers at the KEM hospital]… Aruna's “blood realtives” disappeared from her life a very long time ago. Nobody really knows why and without knowing those reasons, we are in no position to judge them. But it doesn't matter, because Aruna's real family at the KEM hospital never left, staying with her and supporting her for every single day of her life. I am very proud of the Supreme Court of India, because what it took into account while passing the verdict rejecting the plea to end Aruna's life was the only testimony that mattered – that of Aruna's “family” that has cared for her these 37 long years.

According to Deepika at Fan-Attic

Pinki Virani has written a book on Aruna Shanbaug's life, which is titled, “Aruna's Story”. The book higlights the plight of Aruna and what events led to her vegetative state. Writing a book is one thing, but filing a mercy petition is another. There are several points to be noted, Aruna is not on life support system, she's looked after by a staff of trained nurses, she has shown signs of life. Let nature take its own course, she has survived these last 37 years with love and care of trained nurses, when her family abandoned her.

Tweets discussed Pinki's plea, Aruna's condition, comments supporting or questioning the apex court verdict and also anger at the limited sentence that the rapist received from our halls of justice. For example:

@dreambubbles81 Malabika Ghosh – Who is Pinky Virani to plead euthanasia for Aruna Shanbag, when people taking care of her day in and day out are happy to continue?

@rawaldhiraj77 dhiraj rawal – good judgement by SC on Aruna Shanbag case.Hats off 2 the staff of KEM

@abhishinde abhijeet shinde – Aruna Shanbag's heart still beatin.dat means she still wanna live.no1 can take this right frm her….NO ONE!

@MaribMariya Khan Mukhtar – We need to make Govt re asses fate of Aruna lying in Kem hospital.She communicates well she needs treatment not killing by mercy

@subratabhatta subrata bhattacharya – Feel sorry for Aruna Shanbag as SC rejects mercy killing petition.

@keshavsathaye Dr.Keshav Sathaye – Euthanasia petition for Aruna Shanbag dismissed by Supreme Court. Is it not an injustce to a woman who is in bed for last 37 years ?

@atulkasbekar atul kasbekar – All those who r against Aruna Shanbaug's mercy killing plea should pl spend just one week in her state, immobile in a bed. Then talk

@sanjitasingh sanjita singh – Is Passive euthanasia really a better verdict Aruna Shanbaug? I am wondering for the lady who is in a dilapidated state from past 37 years!

@ajayaprabha jayaprabha anipindi – aruna shanbag ! its not u , it is our dormant legislative system became vegitable. it couldnt make any potential law to punish the rapist. .

@PurWaste Purvesh Gada -Sohanlal raped Aruna Shanbaug 37 yrs ago. Now petition has been filed to kill Aruna. Sohanlal roams free. Justice, anyone?

@SANJAYMANJREKAR SANJAY MANJREKAR – aruna shanbag story brings tears to the eyes…no easy answers..but deserves the greatest respect and understanding possible for mankind.

@fayesalins Faye Salins – Indian courts allow passive euthanasia.aruna shanbag may have been a vegetable for the past 37 years,but she just made history!!!

Some continue to speculate on the fate of the rapist – whether he walks free, working anonymously in another hospital, whether he died a horrific death (some would like to believe that he did). Debate continues to rage whether passive euthanasia is really the more humane option as manywish us to believe and whether the court's order regarding passive euthanasia would really work in practice.

…and it the midst of it all, Aruna Shanbaug, now 62yrs,  continues to lie on her bed at the KEM hospital…unable to live, unable to die.

4 comments

  • Vishika

    Thanks for writing on Aruna. These are some sensitive debates and hope they do not just remain debates because lives are being affected.

  • Yes Vishika, agree with you completely.

  • “Aim of debate, argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress” we should work for the betterment of society , we cant fully understood each and every aspect of mam Aruna personally then we should comment … , we should contribute in our own way to help her.. not by simply commenting …

  • manoj rana

    aruna is vegetative state u all knw that and she ly on bed last many 30 year bt no improvement so its good for her that mis pinki virani “journalist” filled writ petition in supreme court to stop feeding aruna … well i think its good for for aruna if supreme court accept her apeal for mercy killing. there are two asspect one is social and second is scienctific accordind to social mercy killing is against the law of nature bt on another side if patient ly on the bad since many year so its better for her or him to take mercy killing.

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