In this case the petitioner Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug was a staff Nurse working in King Edward Memorial Hospital, Parel, Mumbai. On the evening of 27th November, 1973 she was attacked by a sweeper in the hospital who wrapped a dog chain around her neck and yanked her back with it. He tried to rape her but finding that she was menstruating, he sodomized her. To immobilize her during this act he twisted the chain around her neck. The next day, a cleaner found her in an unconscious condition lying on the floor with blood all over. It was alleged that due to strangulation by the dog chain the supply of oxygen to the brain stopped and the brain got damaged.
Thirty six years had lapsed since the said incident. She had been surviving on mashed food and could not move her hands or legs. It wass alleged that there is no possibility of any improvement in the condition and that she was entirely dependent on KEM Hospital, Mumbai. It was prayed to direct the Respondents to stop feeding Aruna and let her die in peace.
The question before the court was whether Euthanasia or Mercy killing is legal or not? And whether the ‘right to life’ under Article 21 includes the ‘right to die’?
The court held that while the ‘right to life’ under Article 21 includes the ‘right to die with dignity’, it does not include the ‘right to die’ per se. In other words, suicide is illegal and punishable, but passive euthanasia is legal under certain circumstances. However, the court did recommend the deletion of Section 309 of the IPC, finding it ‘anachronistic ‘ and underscoring that a person who attempts suicide ‘needs help rather than punishment ‘.
It is interesting to note the sources the Supreme Court of India used to arrive at its decision. It relied primarily on foreign cases, even though some relevant Indian case law was available. The court discussed judgments and statutory law from regions including Canada, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. It extensively cited the judgment of the House of Lords (the United Kingdom) in Airedale NHS Trust v. Bland (1993), in which a patient was allowed to die through the withdrawal of life-supporting treatment. The court also relied on sources such as George Bernard Shaw’s play The Doctor’s Dilemma, Robin Cook’s novel Coma and even Google! Paragraph 103 of the judgment said that a news item the bench encountered on the internet told the story of Terry Wallis from America, who slipped into coma after an accident in 1984, but regained consciousness twenty-four years later due to nerve regeneration in his brain. The bench also referred to a related medical case, stating ‘ see Terri Schiavo’s on Google ‘.
Thus, the window of opportunity to legalize euthanasia within the existing legal framework left open by the Supreme Court in Gian kaur v. State of Punjab (AIR 1996 SC 1257) was taken up in the Aruna Shanbaug case.
(Rahil Amin Mir, a law student at Central University of Kashmir)