The Shanbaug case is a unique one in many respects. The court had to be very careful in pronouncing a judgement because Aruna Shanbaug herself can neither affirm nor deny her right to live or die. What goes on in her mind is anybody’s guess as many cells of her brain have been dead for so long. One of the foremost questions was if Pinki Virani, just by writing a book on her, could be described as her friend.
Many other questions were raised on Aruna Shanbaug’s condition itself. A lot of reports suggested that she is ‘brain dead’ and doesn’t exhibit any reactions. Nurses attending to her reported she has clear preferences when it comes to food, made certain noises and gestures, responded to her name by blinking her eyes and she had a liking for devotional music. A video to that effect was shown in the Supreme Court. She was neither completely vegetative, nor was she capable of doing anything on her own. She wasn’t even on life support. But insofar as there were signs of life in her and we didn’t know what exactly she wanted, is it right to kill her, even in the name of mercy?
One of the major points in favour of euthanasia for Aruna was that she has been in this state for so long, and that she should be put out her misery. The only argument that goes against this is whether it is right to kill someone because we feel sorry for them as a society? Most people who favour euthanasia for her have empathised with her suffering and are reacting from their own vantage point - imagining what if it happened to them or someone they knew. While it is a noble thought, what happens then is that we impose our thoughts and ideas of what is a dignified life or death on someone else. And what complicates it further is that, that someone is not able to tell us what they want.
The courts were fearful of setting a precedent. Hence they took the cautious approach of denying Aruna death, but at the same time saying that passive euthanasia, i.e. withdrawing life support and such other acts in cases of severely, terminally ill patients could be considered under special circumstances and that a law be formulated for this.
Euthanasia is a very sensitive topic and no one rule can fit every case. Every case will have to be treated separately, so one should actually refrain from saying they are pro or anti-euthanasia, simply because every life is different and as such must be given the unique respect it was born with.