Google fb32x32 twitter linkedin feed-icon-32x32

The Aruna Shanbaug Euthanasia Debate

The Aruna Shanbaug Euthanasia Debate

March 10, 2011

Mercy killings for the benefit of the patient, or to clear society's conscience?

The Supreme Court of India gave a landmark judgement in the case of semi-comatose Aruna Shanbaug. Shanbaug was a nurse at Mumbai’s KEM hospital when she was strangled and sodomised by a ward boy in 1973. For 38 years now, she has been in a semi-comatose state. She responds to certain stimuli like food and music, but otherwise has been just lying on her bed for 38 years, abandoned by family and looked after solely by the hospital staff. A writer, Pinki Virani, penned her story and later filed a mercy killing petition for her, sparking off a debate over euthanasia in the country. The court recently rejected this plea, but said passive euthanasia should be considered in certain cases in the country.

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. 


  • Rajpriya
    16.12.11 07:36 AM
    Correction: Please read as - Unmistakably we all know this is a problem and needs solving rather than to discuss at length the circumstances under which her life was terminated.
  • Rajpriya
    16.12.11 07:29 AM
    @ all to whom it may concern.

    Reading most comments debated or at least discussed on assisted dying and assisted living and making, the ultimate decision is in deciding what’s good for the person concerned. I would say: Aruna Shanbaug was a nurse who became a victim to a pervert. Unmistakenly we all know this is a problem and needs solving rather than to discuss at length the circumstances under which her life was terminated.

    If we say this assisted killing was wrong then we need to look into the story related by Susmita Sen, “Save The Girl Child”. We read rightly that a life of Girl can be taken even before she is born. There seems to be no urgent need stop this and the reasons I would say, only God knows?

    In my opinion it could be a man who stood before deaths door but at least he is the stronger compared his opposite the female. This problem of women facing tragedy under different circumstances needs to be stopped and that’s the right way to assisted living.

    The normal way would be, is to give protection to women at work anywhere to prevent a problem than to discuss in finding the solution after. If there were adequate supervision or an additional nurse to be with Aruna when she was subjected to her despicable ordeal may be she lived today instead of spending so much money to keep her alive for 38 years when she was almost dead.

    Finally, my suggestion would be is not to break our heads when we have a problem but prevent repetition- find the solution.

    However, there is a place near Zurich in Switzerland. One could travel there to an organization Dignitas Centre, knock at the door and say “Here I am I need to Die immediately” a place for assisted dying.

    The link to the story:

  • saara
    15.12.11 11:49 PM
    in a country like india, for the minds of the ppl over here, the judgement cant be more than this..... if such mercy killing is allowed, a large number of illegal petitions will be before the court..
  • suri
    15.12.11 11:35 PM
    life is a gift, itz just once.... let a miracle happen with her health...... judiciary really cant end up a life.. but it cud atleast punish that inhuman body for such an act....
  • Abhishek sinha
    Abhishek sinha
    28.09.11 09:17 AM
    i definately agree from court's decision regarding the special case of aruna shaunbaug as she has been living a miserable life for 38 yrs, but it should b completely her choice whether to live or not. What if she wanted to live although she may not b enjoying her life but still she may have some passion for life. And the court should explain the special cases. And yes amendment has to be brought in our constitution.
  • oshin93love
    24.04.11 08:46 PM
    I have been constantly looking up for the court's judgement for passive euthanasia in Aruna Shahnbaug's case. But i am SHOCKED at the court's decision, maybe they are right at their part that mercy killing cant be authorised coz our constitution ammendment does not allow right to die.. but will they make out that where its mentioned that right to live on vegetative state is mentioned?? I am hopeless that Aruna will ever get justice..... and y cant v do something to help her instead off digging in2 our homes and offices and sitting stucked?
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    05.04.11 02:43 PM
    I can't see any way to rule in favour of euthanasia here. Though she may be suffering terribly, locked away inside her head, or may not be functioning at all, where there is any possibility that a life might be taken unwillingly, that life simply cannot be taken.

    If Shanbaug herself was able to somehow communicate that she wished to die, that would be a different story. I wonder if there is any precedent, anywhere in the world, for a paralysed or low-functioning person to be taught how to communicate in order to express whether or not they wish to carry on living.

    Fine piece, Kajal.
  • Prashant Mehta
    Prashant Mehta
    22.03.11 04:03 AM
    I tried exploring this topic and I am not sure if i support euthanasia. I believe that a person is the owner of his own life and only he should be allowed to decide whether or not to end ones life and hence miseries.
  • umesh derebail
    umesh derebail
    11.03.11 06:25 AM
    Passive euthanasia is already in vogue particularly jain community, and i remember in a leading hospital too when the doctors withdrew all forms of treatment since it would only produce heaps of bill, and let him die naturally after 3 days....
  • nandita prakash
    nandita prakash
    10.03.11 06:47 PM
    i have been following up wid this case for really long
    the situation of the judiciary is really miserable &hopeless

Leave a comment