The Supreme Court’s verdict on Friday legalising passive euthanasia owes much to the Aruna Shanbaug case, around which India debated euthanasia. By allowing euthanasia and spelling out strict guidelines on how it can be carried out, the Supreme Court has taken a step towards giving the exact interpretation of the ‘right to live with human dignity’ mentioned in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
In the Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug case, the validity of passive euthanasia was upheld by the Supreme Court, but there is no elaborative procedure for doing the same as the court was under the influence of the Gian Kaur case of 1996, in which it was held that the right to live with dignity under Article 21 was inclusive of the right to die with dignity.
Aruna Shanbaug, 25, was a nurse in the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Mumbai when she was assaulted on November 27, 1973 by a sweeper. During the assault, she was tied with a dog chain around her neck, which cut off oxygen supply to her brain and left her in a permanently vegetative state.From that day Aruna could survive only on mashed food. She could not move her hands or legs and could not talk or even move facial muscles for more than 40 years. This led journalist-activist Pinky Virani, who published a book regarding her case, titled Aruna’s Story, to file a writ petition with the Supreme Court asking for the legalization of euthanasia so that Aruna’s suffering could be terminated by withdrawing medical support.
She contended that the patient had been in a vegetative state for the past many years and did not have any chance of recovery at all.
Aruna died in May 2015 after suffering pneumonia.
The case helped shed light on an extremely complex issue of medical ethics and law.On Friday, the court distinguished between active and passive euthanasia. Active euthanasia means killing a person through the use of a lethal substance or force, and passive euthanasia means withdrawing or discontinuing medical support necessary for the continuation of life.