Bioethics News

Woman at centre of Indian euthanasia debate dies

Aruna Shanbaug  

A woman at the centre of a debate over euthanasia in India has died after 42 years in a minimally conscious state. In 1973 Aruna Shanbaug, a 25-year-old nurse in Mumbai, was brutally assaulted and strangled by a contract cleaner. She did not die, but was left severely brain-damaged.

In 2010 journalist Pinki Virani applied on her behalf for euthanasia. The case went all the way to the Indian Supreme Court which decided that while “passive euthanasia” by withdrawing nutrition and hydration might be permitted, the decision was up to her surrogate decision-maker. In Aruna’s case it was King Edward Memorial Hospital and it adamantly supported on-going palliative care.

It was a complex case and in their judgement, Justices Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra acknowledged that “we feel like a ship in an uncharted sea, seeking some guidance by the light thrown by the legislations and judicial pronouncements of foreign countries”. In the end they set down that “life support” can be withdrawn provided that a close relative or “next friend” or even the doctors request it. However, approval must be sought from one of India’s 21 High Courts to ensure that the decision is in the best interest of the patient. This, the justices insisted, was essential.

“We cannot rule out the possibility that unscrupulous persons with the help of some unscrupulous doctors may fabricate material to show that it is a terminal case with no chance of recovery. There are doctors and doctors. While many doctors are upright, there are others who can do anything for money.”

For 42 years the staff of King Edward cared for the disabled woman.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.