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Aruna Shanbaugh’s life and demise tosses light on India’s law on death, but needs more clarification in passive euthanasia principle

The Case of a Mumbai based nurse, Aruna Shanbaugh who was brutally raped while she was only 25 years of her age in the year 1973 and thereafter she was laying in the Vegetative state for around 42 years in a cubicle in King Edward Memorial Hospital, Mumbai. And it was one Journalist, Pinki Virani, who had brought Aruna’s story in light and she reached to the honourable Apex Court of India for campaigning for legal end to her being force to fed, and not for a mercy killing. Even though the Top Court has rejected her petition in the month of March of 2011, it had allowed for euthanasia in passive sense and guided that in two situations such passive euthanasia can be awarded, firstly, when the persons concerned are alive mechanically and secondly, when there is no plausible possibility of such persons to come out of the stage ever.

In the case of Ms Aruna Shanbaug, the Apex Court of India’s division bench comprising of Justice Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra has examined the question as to whether the life of the patient could be prolonged by life- support treatment, as in her best interest.

By observing that the persons responsible for feeding such patient can lawfully stop doing so, the Court had ordered euthanasia in the passive sense, even though the principle of ‘Euthanasia’ is treated as crime in India. For the persons who trying to end their own lives, are also held guilty of Crime in India, as suicide for which the jail of the term extending to ten year could be awarded against such persons.

Besides, Aruna Shanbaugh’s case, there are seven other instances, which have supported highly to the debate of principle of ‘Euthanasia’ and its need in India. Those cases includes, Maruti Shripati Dubal Vs. State of Maharashtra (1986), Airedale NHS Trust Vs. Bland (1993), P. Rathinam Vs. Union of India (1994), Gian Kaur Vs. State of Punjab (1996), C.A. Thomas Master Vs. Union of India (2000), Aruna Shanbaugh’s case (2011), H. B. Karibasamma’s case (2012) and Common Cause (registered society)’s Case (2014)


The need to clarify a most important issue of ‘Euthanasia’ along with the issue of withholding or withdrawing futile Medical Treatment, has been brought into focus by the death of ‘Aruna Shanbaugh’ as aforesaid. It was told by President of the Indian Association of Palliative Care, Dr. Nagesh Simha to the Rema Nagarjan that when the Judgement was passed by the Apex Court of India in the case of ‘Aruna Shanbaugh’, it had provided certain confusions by referring to the term ‘passive euthanasia’. He has also pointed that how the said could be called ethical where the futile Medical intervention sought to be withheld or withdraw as such there is seen urgent need of clarity of issue in Law.

Answering the question as to why he has objected to the term of ‘passive euthanasia?, Dr. Nagesh stated that the use of archaic definitions to be avoided when the matter is one relating to End of life care and the term of ‘passive euthanasia, in his accord to be consigned to the dustbin of history. He further, claimed to have a dialogue between all the stakeholders and for permitting such withholding and withdrawing of futile medical interventions there must be made laws with clarity.

Dr. Nagesh, added that, in order to give correct meaning to the term ‘good death’ one should define it as a ‘pain- free death’ which is a universal wish. He claimed that the Patient should be pain and symptom free, in such a way the Palliative care should at least be ensured, with full control of current happenings, necessary emotional and spiritual support, etc. Further, he added that a significant protection to be provided to the dying Patients, against the exploitation by their family and treating physicians.

He mentioned that there is no difference between the two principles of Palliative Care and End of Life- EOL treatment in the Hospitals, adding to its claim that good palliative care consequent in good End of Life Care. ‘Death must be given with dignity’ he further added.

As there was no provision in Indian legal frame work, till the decision in the Aruna’s case, as to the legal procedure covering the aspect of withdrawing life support to a person who was being in a vegetation state, however, the same is allowed in somehow extent by the Apex Court in India by its same judgement. But, even though such decision was adopted, it is notably, there are many other concerned aspect need to be studied and clarified by the Supreme Court of India, as claimed by Mr. Nagesh. Thus, though the life of Ms Aruna has gone, but the issue of euthanasia is still alive.

by Faim Khalilkhan Pathan.