The lights slowly dimmed inside Court 6 of the Supreme Court. The packed courtroom was filled with a sense of foreboding mingled with apprehension as the video projector came alive. Outside it was a bright summer morning of March 2011.
In the next few minutes, Justices Markandeya Katju and Gyansudha Misra would get their first glimpse of Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug, the nurse at the civic authority-run KEM Hospital in Mumbai who never recovered from her coma after she was raped in November 1973.
The judges were to decide whether Ms. Shanbaug should live or die.
A petition had been filed by her “next friend” and author, Pinky Virani, praying for an order to remove her life-support. But Justice Katju knew the court was straying into a grey area. Would withdrawal of food and medication from Ms. Shanbaug amount to manslaughter or an act of mercy medically termed ‘passive euthanasia’?
So, the court had asked for a video of the bed-ridden Ms. Shanbaug to see if she exhibited any signs of life. The video, the Bench decided, would be played in open court.
At the back of the courtroom were a few doctors and nurses from KEM Hospital who had travelled from Mumbai.
As the white screen lit up, Ms. Shanbaug was seen in her hospital bed. Devotional songs played in the background even as a voice spoke to her in soothing tones.
As the video played out, the judges watched for signs of human life in Ms. Shanbaug. Justice Misra, at one instance, pointed out to her fellow judge how she had tried to scratch her forehead in one of the visuals.
As soon as the screening ended, the debate on whether Ms. Shanbaug should live or die began.
Ms. Virani started off by asking the court "whether Aruna's present status can be said to be a human life at all?"
But Attorney General G.E. Vahanvati, who was asked to assist the court, said "the right to die should not be confused with the right to die an unnatural death".
The debate remained inconclusive and slipped into legalese.
It was finally left to the nurses and staffers of KEM Hospital to come forward and stand in front of the judges to claim Ms. Shanbaug as their own.
"With every new batch of entrants, the student nurses are introduced to her and they are told she was one of us and she continues to be one of us," an affidavit by the hospital staff told the judges of the hospital’s tradition.
They described Ms. Shanbaug as a "child we have cared and nurtured for 33 years.”
They said the very idea of putting her “to sleep” is “extremely difficult for anybody in the hospital to accept.”
One of the nurses stepped up to address the Bench and said, "No, now is not the moment."
Four days later, the apex court dismissed Ms. Virani’s euthanasia plea, while calling the care given to Ms. Shanbaug by the hospital staff as “iconic.”
Supreme Court guidelines on Euthanasia
Active euthanasia: Administering of lethal injection to snuff out life is illegal in India
Passive euthanasia: Withdrawing life support, treatment or nutrition that would allow a person to live, was legalised by way of SC guidelines in 2011.
Parents, spouse, close kin, "next friend" can decide, in best interests of the patient, to discontinue life support. The decision must be approved by a HC. In dealing with such a plea ,
- Chief Justice of High Court must create a Bench of at least 2 judges to reach a decision.
- Bench must nominate three reputed doctors
- A copy of the doctors's panel report must be provided to close kin and State govt. Only then can verdict be reached.
- - Aruna Shanbaug was brutally assaulted and raped by a wardboy-cum-sweeper of the hospital, Sohanlal Bharta Valmiki who throttled her with a dog chain. The brutal assault cut off blood and oxygen supply to key parts of her brain.
- - Valmiki is sentenced to six years in prison. He is released in 1980.
- - Pinki Virani, author of 'Aruna's Story', moves court seeking a peaceful death for Aruna and that the force-feeding be stopped
- - Supreme Court rejects petition. The petition was opposed by the hospital's management and nursing staff.
- - Aruna Shanbaug dies
>To live and to let go
Even as the Supreme Court considers the need for living wills, a new documentary film looks at the factors that haunt the issue of passive mercy killing.
>Of mercy and ending life
"We could have dismissed the petition [because]… the right to life guaranteed the Constitution does not include right to die"
>Who has the last word?
Legal experts and medical activists share their thoughts on the implications of the landmark judgment.
>The right to death
There is no point referring to ‘our values', since values are not to be seen as ours, yours or theirs; they are humane in essence.