Supreme Court to examine mercy killing plea

Monday, January 24, 2011

NEW DELHI - The Supreme Court Monday said it would examine whether the right to live granted under Article 21 of the Constitution allows for passive euthanasia (mercy killing). The apex court was hearing a petition seeking mercy killing of a patient who is in coma since the last 36 years.

“This is an order which will be very delicate and sensitive. We don’t want to commit a judicial murder,” the court said.

The apex court bench of Justice Markandey Katju and Justice Gyan Sudha Misra said: Euthanasia is one of the most perplexing issues which the courts and legislatures all over the world are facing today.”

This Court, in this case, is facing the same issue, and we feel like a ship in an unchartered sea, seeking some guidance by the light thrown by the legislations and judicial precedents of foreign countries, the court said.

“We have not made up our mind. We have to examine the legislation. Whether euthanasia could be ordered by the court, the government, hospital or an NGO,” the court said.

The court observations came in the course of the hearing of a petition by Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug (who is in coma) moved by her friend Pinki Virani, seeking mercy killing for the petitioner.

Shanbung is admitted to King Edward Memorial Hospital in Mumbai. She was earlier working as a nurse in the hospital.

On Nov 27, 1973, Shanbaug went into coma after a sexual assault by a sweeper in the hospital.

Earlier, to immobilise her during the assault the assaulter wrapped a dog chain around her neck and twisted it. As a result, the supply of oxygen to the brain stopped and it got damaged. She was found in an unconscious condition the next day.

The victim, who is around 60-year-old, has been reduced to a featherweight and her brittle bones could break if her hand or leg is awkwardly caught, even accidentally, under her light body, the petition said.

She is prone to bed sores. Her wrists are twisted inwards. Her teeth have decayed causing her immense pain. She can only be given mashed food, it said.

The court said: It is alleged that Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug is in a persistent vegetative state and virtually a dead person and has no state of awareness, and her brain is virtually dead. She can neither see, nor hear anything nor can she express herself or communicate, in any manner whatsoever.

The court was appraised of the report submitted by the hospital which said that Shanbaug was conscious. When Virani questioned the doctors’ report, the court asked why was she opposing the doctors’ findings.

At this the court appointed another team of three doctors to examine Shanbaug.

The court said that on the basis of their report it will decide whether there was any life left in the petitioner Shanbaug. We have to decide whether it is life. Can it be called life,” the court said.

Justice Katju said that he had looked for the laws of various countries. It was only in Switzerland that there was a law for mercy killing. In the US, different states have different statute.

When senior counsel T.R. Andhyarujina, who was appointed by the court to assist it in the case, said that doctors were under oath and could not take a life, Justice Kaju said: Nobody can be deprived of life and liberty. Whether it (the condition Shanbaug is living in) is a life. Can it be called life.

Justice Misra asked Shanbaugs friend as to how could the court order euthanasia (mercy killing) without any consent of the petitioner who was in coma.

A few year after Shanbaug slipped into coma, her brother and sister were asked to take her home but they declined and today she has none other than Virani to look after her.

The court also asked Attorney General G. Vahanvati to assist the court in the matter.

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