Supreme Court reserves verdict on plea for mercy killing

At the conclusion of arguments, the Supreme Court on Wednesday reserved verdict on whether Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug, lying in a vegetative state in a Mumbai hospital bed for 37 years, could be subjected to passive mercy killing by stopping food, even as the hospital made it clear that it would keep her alive till the natural end.

Earlier a team of doctors — J.V. Divatia, Roop Gurshani and Nilesh Shah appointed by the court to examine the patient's condition made a presentation and submitted reports on her condition.

Quoting judgments from foreign countries, senior counsel Shekhar Naphade, appearing for Aruna's friend Pinki Virani of Mumbai, said the paramount consideration were the best interests of the patient. The Law Commission had also recommended that patients who were terminally ill and in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) should be permitted to die by withdrawing the life support system. Aruna was in a PVS and her existence could not be considered a human life.

Attorney-General G.E. Vahanvati said Aruna had the right to live in her present state. Her condition would not justify termination of her life by withdrawing hydration/food/medical support, and doing so would be contrary to law, cruel, inhuman and intolerable. If food was withdrawn, the efforts put in by the hospital all these years would be undermined.

What was applicable to the western world would not be relevant to “our country where emotions and culture played a major part and we have strong social values.” Mercy killing would result in a dangerous situation as it would be easy to eliminate others if such a thing was allowed in the country, said the AG. Justice Markandey Katju observed: “We are also concerned that once this is allowed, there will be too many such requests from relatives. There is a possibility that relatives in collusion with some doctors may bump off the patient claiming he/she is in a PVS though he/she may not be really so.”

Senior counsel for the KEM Hospital Pallav Sisodia said that not once these long years did anybody in the hospital think of putting an end to Aruna's so-called vegetative existence. The patient “cannot distinguish between man and woman, nor can she even distinguish between an ordinate and inordinate object. Till September last, she was given mashed food through mouth. But thereafter she has been fed through a nasogastric tube.”

Counsel argued that relatives did not take care of Aruna, and as only the hospital had an interest in her, it alone could decide whether or not to stop food. The hospital would not allow stopping of food. She had crossed 60 years and would one day meet her natural end, but the doctors, nurses and other staff of the KEM Hospital were determined to take care of her till then. The court should not embark on an academic exercise when the hospital was not interested in stopping food or medicines. Amicus curiae and senior counsel T.R. Andhyarujina said the decision to withdraw the life support was taken in the best interests of the patient. In this case stopping food might not be illegal or unlawful as it would be in the best interests of Aruna.

Justice Gyan Sudha Misra was on the Bench along with Justice Katju.