The Supreme Court on Monday decided to examine whether euthanasia will come within the ambit of Article 21 (right to life and liberty) of the Constitution.

A Bench of Justices Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra posted for final hearing on February 22 a writ petition by Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug, who has been lying in a hospital bed for 37 years in a vegetative state, for mercy killing by stopping mashed food. It has been filed through her next friend, Pinki Virani of Mumbai.

Amicus curiae

The Bench issued notice to Attorney-General G.E. Vahanvati and appointed senior advocate T.R. Andhyarujina amicus curiae to assist the court in the various questions involved. The question of locus standi of the next friend of the petitioner to move this petition will also be considered that day.

The Bench, in its order, 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 uncharted sea, seeking some guidance by the light thrown by the legislation and judicial precedents of foreign countries.”

According to the petitioner, Aruna has been in a pathetic state in the KEM hospital, Mumbai, since November 1973. When she was working as staff nurse, she was assaulted and sodomised by a sweeper, who later strangulated her with a dog chain to immobilise her. Her brain cells got damaged and since then she has been in a vegetative state. Her bones became brittle, wrists were twisted inwards, and fingers bent at the joints and fisted into the palms. Her teeth have decayed. Mashed food is being administered through the throat to keep her alive. She is now 60 years and there is no possibility of any improvement in her condition, and her continued vegetative existence is a violation of her right to live with dignity.

The Bench pointed out that the affidavit, filed in response to the notice issued in December 2009, of Amar Ramaji Pazare, Professor and head in the hospital, “states that Aruna accepts food in normal course and responds by facial expressions. She responds to commands intermittently by making sounds. She makes sounds when she has to pass stools and urine which the nursing staff identifies and attends to her by leading her to the toilet. Thus, there is some variance between the allegations in the writ petition and the counter affidavit.” The Bench, therefore, appointed a panel of three doctors from Mumbai — J.V. Divatia, Professor and head, Department of Anaesthesia, Critical Care and Pain at the Tata Memorial Hospital; Roop Gursahani, consultant neurologist at the P.D. Hinduja Hospital; and Nilesh Shah, Professor and head, Department of Psychiatry at the Lokmanya Tilak Municipal Corporation Medical College and General Hospital — to examine Aruna and give a report about her physical and mental condition.