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Should India allow euthanasia?

Soutik Biswas | 12:44 UK time, Thursday, 17 December 2009

Aruna ShanbaugDoes Aruna Shanbaug deserve to die? Journalist Pinki Virani believes so. She says Ms Shanbaug should be freed from the indignity and suffering that she has endured for the past 36 years. Confined to a hospital bed after being nearly strangled with a bicycle chain by her rapist, she has been in what doctors call a "persistent vegetative state" - severe brain damage, but not in a coma for most of the time since November 1973.

Ms Shanbaug, now 61, is unable to hear much, barely able to move and understands very little. She's force-fed dutifully twice a day and kept alive by nurses. She used to be one herself. Life mocks her every living moment: refusing to leave her, it condemns her into a humiliating compromise - a netherworld between life and death.

So Ms Virani, author of a chilling book on Ms Shanbaug, has now petitioned the Supreme Court with a plea that she be allowed to die - if she is not fed for a few days, she says, the former nurse will stop living. Mercy killing is illegal in India, so it will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court handles what could turn out to be a landmark case.

Ms Shanbaug's condition brings to mind two similar, high-profile cases in recent times.
Last year Italy's top court awarded a man the right to disconnect the feeding tube that kept his comatose daughter alive for 16 years. And in 2005, a brain-damaged Florida woman Terri Schiavo died after her feeding tube was removed, following a seven-year legal battle between her husband and parents. Ms Schiavo had been in a vegetative state for some 15 years.

Euthanasia is a contentious issue the world over - the Economist magazine once said that "few laws have been drafted to regulate the delivery of death". The Netherlands was the first country in the world to legalise euthanasia seven years ago. In Italy, euthanasia is illegal, but Italian law upholds a patient's right to refuse care and the potential contradiction has led to thorny legal disputes. Passive euthanasia is possible in Sweden following new medical guidelines allowing doctors to halt life-extending treatment if the patient asks. Germany has a fuzzy law on assisted suicide - it is legal, but it cannot involve a doctor because it would violate his Hippocratic oath. And in Switzerland, assisted suicide is legal and non-physicians can be involved.

India lags far behind on the issue of euthanasia or assisted suicide. In a country where attempting to take one's life remains a criminal offence, it is difficult to see a court venturing into the minefield of the right-to-die issue. A prominent right-to-die activist said years ago that an Indian court "is not yet geared to the concept of allowing a person to be assisted in suicide." No wonder no human rights lawyer has taken up Ms Shanbaug's case in the past 36 years.

Also, I wonder whether the overburdened legal system will have the stamina to examine the merits of Ms Virani's brave petition: the Supreme Court alone has a backlog of over 50,000 cases. But if the courts revisit the country's derelict laws and help trigger a debate on whether euthanasia or assisted suicide could be negotiated in a complex society like India's, Ms Shanbaug's life in indignity would not have been in vain.


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  • 1. At 2:25pm on 17 Dec 2009, Ananya78 wrote:

    Hinduism does not approve of people taking their own lives. And that might be the biggest impediment to making euthanasia legal in India. Sometimes religion is the biggest impediment in social reform. So the Supreme Court should treat Aruna's case as special.

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  • 2. At 2:56pm on 17 Dec 2009, keralavarma wrote:

    It is not one of the travesties of life that one procreates but cannot extinguish life at will in a civilised world.
    This is the crux of the problem which has no ready answers;Aruna Shanbhag lives on in the corridors of the hospital in Bombay where she was brutally incapacitated.
    No one else except some grieve her condition and life as we know it goes on......alive or otherwise she still lingers on....

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  • 3. At 4:21pm on 17 Dec 2009, preeti wrote:

    Who gets to decide whether Ms.Shanbaug is living with indignity? A person should decide for herself/himself if in such capacity! Or else who decides for that person? A journalist who has written on her life? Her siblings, who never bothered about her? Courts? Government? I believe in value of life. If Ms.Virani is so much bothered about Ms.Shanbaug can't she do something else other than petitioning that Ms.Shanbaug be allowed to die? Like, keeping her alive but make sure that she is treated with the respect and dignity any other person deserves. I want to believe that there is always a chance for Ms.Shanbaug to come out of that vegetative state, if you let her live!

    Write a book and then petition to let her die! Great!

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  • 4. At 4:46pm on 17 Dec 2009, ghostofsichuan wrote:

    People always say that life is short, yet when others have conditions that we fear their life seems so long. Is the value of life some measure of productivity? People starve to death and no one petitions the court on their behalf. She reminds us of vulnerability, potential and what standards reflect human value. As we are uncomfortable with these questions, we would rather she die. Life is either sacred or not, there can be no conditional responses, it is not a diffcult question.

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  • 5. At 6:53pm on 17 Dec 2009, mbht wrote:

    When a woman is raped she is not only robbed of her diginity but also her soul. What Aruna is going through is unimaginable. Though she is brain dead, there must be a reason why her heart is still beating for the last 36 years. Aruna is probably still alive as she hopes that she will get justice some day. The trauma that she experiences everyday is like the sentence she is serving for the crime she never committed. Instead of filing her petition in order to free her of her suffering, the media and the people should stand up and fight for her justice, just the way they did in the case of Aarushi and Jessica Lall. Even if she dies she will not rest in peace as she will still yearn for the justice she never got !

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  • 6. At 11:03am on 18 Dec 2009, bernard Mallia wrote:

    I don't understand how people can pretend they are masters of life. The case in point is not even a case of euthanasia when there is no more hope left of life continuing in a human way, though even then the Doctors may advice when any more help becomes utterly useless, which is a really extreme case. In the case of this Indian woman of 61 still feels and knows she is lovingly cared for even if she can't respond much. It is really arrogant to just curtail a person's life just because that person is in a weak state. Only God is God and let us not play gods.

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  • 7. At 3:52pm on 18 Dec 2009, Rahul wrote:

    1. At 2:25pm on 17 Dec 2009, Ananya78 wrote:
    Hinduism does not approve of people taking their own lives. And that might be the biggest impediment to making euthanasia legal in India. Sometimes religion is the biggest impediment in social reform. So the Supreme Court should treat Aruna's case as special.
    Funny i dont know which Hinduism you are talking about where saints have left their body, i.e. taken samadhi, where they have stopped eating food and died.
    Besides India is a Constitutional Secular Nation, even UK has a state religion. Sometimes i really wonder what is the difference between literate and uneducated, please let me know.

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  • 8. At 6:02pm on 18 Dec 2009, deep22 wrote:

    Ms Virani is trying to do what she thinks is righteous. Godspeed.

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  • 9. At 6:15pm on 18 Dec 2009, funniinnit wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 10. At 6:39pm on 18 Dec 2009, CJ Vasani wrote:

    "Hinduism does not approve of people taking their own lives. And that might be the biggest impediment to making euthanasia legal in India. Sometimes religion is the biggest impediment in social reform. So the Supreme Court should treat Aruna's case as special."

    I thought India was a secular constitutional democracy since 1947...has that changed?

    Regardless of all opinions, we have no idea what is right answer here. Both arguments are compelling, but no one can imagine the pain she went through or is probably still going through. I hope the person who did this to her was brought to justice.

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  • 11. At 6:25pm on 19 Dec 2009, SimpleMind wrote:

    I am not in a position to comment on this specific question, but what bothers me is the guy who is responsible for this is out and free, Shouldn’t we have stringent punishment, like the punishment should be at least by a multiplying factor of the victim’s suffering.

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  • 12. At 6:59pm on 19 Dec 2009, uk2001 wrote:

    Soutik- There is a simple side of it. That's common sense. In a country like India where medical facilities are so scarce, is it worth? So what society should do? There is no straightforward answer to it. If the matter is given legality, then where is the guarantee that it would not be misused? Personally I think this type of issues should be decided on case by case basis and there should not be any simple and straight regal right to die law.... at least for next few decades till we Indians become morally rich beside the country getting rich. Even if there comes a law, I think each and every case should be endorsed from the level of a sitting Supreme Court judge before it is actually carried out by medical professionals.
    Wish you merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

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  • 13. At 7:49pm on 19 Dec 2009, krishnamurthi ramachandran wrote:

    On religious point of view, no body can take or allow to take on any body!s life.
    Even suicides are not allowed either by law or from any religious sayings.
    Now, a days world is changing day by day on account of science and technology,easy,affordable communication to many people and by the by ,sufferers are not able to withstand on any known or unknown torture by their bodies under all circumstances.
    This case is a special and very pathetic to live with some life support.
    Euthanasia can be recognized, accepted by law formation,by modern thinkers and concerned affected persons.
    As per my knowledge goes to this painful subject, i have seen,noticed,heard that, many long suffering patients are not able to live or have any affectionate,soul searching persons are behind them.
    So, under strict supervision,affected persons own declaration, against mis usage , Euthanasia will be allowed in letter and in practice.

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  • 14. At 8:12pm on 19 Dec 2009, Aru wrote:

    Hinduism doesnt have anything to do with this woman. Why hide behind the edicts of religion. The point here should be what a life should be about. This woman has been kept alive for 36 yrs..what more indignity could she suffer? There will always be cases of euthanesia being abused but in true cases like these mercy should be bestowed. whether the man who did this to her has been caught and brought to justice is another matter altogether. The fact remains that this woman be allowed to die in peace.

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  • 15. At 10:40pm on 19 Dec 2009, Krantibir wrote:

    A few of your commentators have talked about Hinduism. I am not sure whether religion has got any role to play in this decision making process, but when I was in India, I have witnessed and read about several real killings (i.e. mass murder) in the name of caste and religion. Therefore, mercy killing can't be that bad for this particular religion.
    I don't know the detail of Ms Shanbung but I think the court should first decide whether she is in real persistent vegetative state (PVS) or not. Advent of modern technology sometimes surprises us all. Quite a few of the labeled cases of PVS have been found to have brain activities with fMRI or PET.
    Finally court should take account of her wishes before her brutal and shameful attack. I am sure somebody somewhere should know what she wanted if she ended up in a situation akin to this.

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  • 16. At 07:56am on 20 Dec 2009, nemo64 wrote:

    A plea for mercy killing should be made in India.As somebody said we cannot decide our birth but as adults we are free to choose our profession,life partner,lifestyle,number of children,friends etc.Why then should an individual not have the right to decide how he wants to end his life? In any case, passive euthanasia ,by taking the patient out of life support is prevalent in India.The Supreme Court should therefore take steps to see that Aruna is released from the ignominy of existence.

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  • 17. At 7:57pm on 20 Dec 2009, Nik Macve wrote:

    "Only God is God and let us not play gods"

    If nobody was feeding Aruna Shanbaug artificially, she would die. Do you not think that keeping her alive when she would die without this intervention is also a type of playing god?

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  • 18. At 10:56pm on 20 Dec 2009, Ajay wrote:

    What if in future we find a cure for an illness cosidered incurable now

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  • 19. At 10:22am on 21 Dec 2009, Rahul wrote:

    15. At 10:40pm on 19 Dec 2009, Krantibir wrote:
    A few of your commentators have talked about Hinduism. I am not sure whether religion has got any role to play in this decision making process, but when I was in India, I have witnessed and read about several real killings (i.e. mass murder) in the name of caste and religion. Therefore, mercy killing can't be that bad for this particular religion.
    Another muppet missing the whole point of where to write what, read my earlier post literte but uneducated. Thank goodness you did not discuss Telganga, Kashmir or for that reason even killings in and by Iraq, Afghanistan, Palistines, Israel, erstwhile Khalistan, Pakistan, China etc etc, does that cover all the major religions of the world ?

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  • 20. At 2:23pm on 21 Dec 2009, smilingVishwanath wrote:

    All human beings on this planet have a right to live with dignity. If a person is so ill and if it is felt that death is liberation from all sufferings, he/she should be allowed to have the right to undergo euthanasia. The consent should be given by a group consisting of immediate relative of the patient, a priest and a doctor so that stigma of guilt does not attach to the kith & kin of the patient.

    While on the subject of mercy killing, I wish to say that all animals which are killed for food should be administered anasthesia before they are actually slaughtered. Also all pests lke mosquitoes, cockroach, lice, lizard should never be left half alive when we try to get rid of them in our houses.

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  • 21. At 2:41pm on 22 Dec 2009, Suraj wrote:

    Can there be any worst phase of life which anybody could have undergone than Aruna Shanbaug. The suffering she has undergone for 36 years (this is a very very long period) cannot just be described in words. I feel that we should be more realistic in terms of laws governing our country and not just go by the books in the longer benefit of humanity as a whole. There could be many people like Aruna although reasons could be different. I don't see any reason why euthanasia should be allowed in India. I really feel that relligion, caste, creed or gender has anything to do with this and it is just one thing - SUFFERING which the person has to undergo.

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  • 22. At 3:43pm on 22 Dec 2009, Prashanth wrote:

    Making euthanasia legal wont provide solution for the problem rather it will provoke medical people to think "we always have a choice...!".
    Whatever law you frame,whatever rule prescribed the crime never reduced.
    Already medical field and hospitals getting exploited by some of fake doctors,legalization of euthanasia can lead to many new issues.

    I do agree suraj's comment,nikmacve's Rahulc's quote and manyothers.
    there is nothing in religious,Aruna is one among many sufferers.In such cases we can go for mercy kill.Perhaps there is no guarantee that it is not misused.Thus i feel, if euthanasia is legalized it will encourage more sins and crimes than goodness.

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  • 23. At 12:25pm on 26 Dec 2009, djavous wrote:

    To understand what the consequences of this law will be visit some Indian nuclear families and see how the elderly are treated there.Next ask your self what are the facilities for the elderly people who might want to live independently in the dusk of their lives.The answer becomes evidently clear.In India where most families live in a nuclear arrangement the immediate next of kin stand a lot to gain when the elder most person in that family dies.There is no government funded health care for the elderly.The family put all the expenses up to treat their elderly .The property; bank balances and many things are left the way it is because the head of the family so wishes it.Important and even trivial decisions are made by the head and this is rarely challenged by his children.To do so would mean disrespect.In such a situation it is dangerous to have a law which states that mercy killing is all right.There is too much risk here and a lot of people stand a lot to gain by the death of one old man.In other words the the potential to abuse this law is very great in India where as we know even when there are so many laws in place how frequently they are broken and the culprit escapes punishment most of the times.Excuse my saying so but frankly speaking India has to do more to fight corruption.And with such levels of corruption this law would spell disaster
    In western societies too this risk is there but in the west the children moove out of their parents houses when they turn 18.They turn financially independant too and start to make a living themselves and lead an independent life away from their parents.Often times everything the old people have will be sold so that they can fund their stay in old age homes.They draw up their wills and constantly change it taking into account their life situation.Most leave some amount to their children and some to charity.The children are free to take any course they want in life and they do not need their elders support or approval for it.So in effect they dont have to wait for someone to die before taking that crucial step to do whatever it is they have to do in life.So here in this scenario the children dont stand to gain a lot from their parents death.
    I am not suggesting that this will happen in India and all children look forward to their parents death (Forgive me if I have come across in that manner so far) but Im merely stating that the potential for it to happen is there and thus the potential for abuse of this law is many times greater in India than it would be in the West.Even when such is the case mercy killing is largely outlawed in most western societies even though the state and religion are independent of each other.Why is it so ?Because the law makers see the potential of misuse.Who is to say what the insurance company will direct its doctors to do regarding old people if mercy killings were legal.
    For these reasons and there are many more but these are the most important reasons I believe mercy killing should never be made legal in India .It does not fit in the society there.I cant see a role for it in their way of life and their social structure.

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  • 24. At 1:43pm on 04 Jan 2010, Mervyn Sullivan wrote:

    On May 25, 1995, the parliament of Australia's Northern Territory passed the Northern Territory Rights of the Terminally Ill Act making voluntary euthanasia legal. Unfortunately, the Act was subsequently voided by an amendment of the Federal Parliament to the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act 1978.

    How ironic that in Australia a family pet or any other animal that is found suffering must be painlessly euthanased... in the best interests of the animal. Yet a seriously suffering terminally ill human being must, at all cost, have to continue with his/her suffering until he/she eventually faces an undignified death. It really is a bloody shame!

    I say that Aruna Shanbaug deserves to die with dignity by her own choice.

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  • 25. At 12:49pm on 09 Jan 2010, Emily wrote:

    What is all this about India on BBC website. I've never seen so many stories about one country from one news media. BBC, are you racist? Move on to another country, besides the US and India. How about Saudi Arabia or Egypt? Isn't there another country you'd like to pick on?

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  • 26. At 3:44pm on 20 Jan 2010, Saptarshi Roy wrote:

    I don't understand what Emily (comment 25) wants to portray here. Isn't this Soutik Biswas's blog on India? Why and what is she cribbing about? Maybe she doesn't want India to feature anywhere in the BBC. I feel the seeds of dictatorial tendencies are sowing on her mind. Hopefully she would be relevant in her posts from the future and not troll like she has done above.

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