Euthanasia plea sparks off debate among docs
17 December 2009
MUMBAI: There is no ambiguity in south Mumbai-based general practitioner Dr Surendra Dhelia's words. KEM Hospital nurse Aruna Shanbaug, he says, is "possibly skin and bone'' now. "Even a miracle would possibly not save her. She definitely needs a peaceful exit,'' he says with the pain of someone who has walked a similar path not too long ago.
Dr Dhelia's father was in a vegetative state for two years before passing away in 1996. "Thanks to the combination of diabetes, complications of the prostrate as well as dementia, my father couldn't recognise his wife or any of his children. We were left praying to God to take him away peacefully,'' he says.
The doctor thereafter joined the Society for the Right to Die with Dignity (SRDD) that believed in ensuring a dignified death for all. When the society's founder, urologist Dr B N Colabawalla, passed away in 2002, it slipped into a hibernation of sorts. But last year a few doctors and relatives got together to revive the society. "At every consecutive seminar or meet we organise, we feel more and more people are understanding the cause,'' says 58-year-old Dr Dhelia.
However, while the `dignity in death' concept found support in the Planning Commission's document last year, even its diehard proponents admit that Shanbaug's case doesn't classically fit into the definition of those seeking voluntary death. "She has no living will that says she would have preferred assisted dying rather than living on support. There is no power of attorney that bestows on someone the right to decide for her. It certainly complicates matters,'' says Dr Nagraj Huilgol, cancer specialist at Nanavati Hospital and the society's secretary.
There also is the latest development in Germany to consider. A patient who was in a vegetative state recently managed to convey through a communicator that for over 26 years he could hear all that was told to him or things happening around him. "It would be prudent to first assess that the former nurse is indeed not sensitive to things around her.''
But Dr Huilgol points out that society as a whole could take a stand here. "Society has no gains to make from her death. It has no vested interests either. So, the courts could consider this as a public interest matter.'' He points out the two-year-old Terry Schavio case in which the Supreme Court of the United States allowed the plea of Terry's husband to remove the pipe. There was widespread opposition from the woman's parents. "So there is a precedent from the US here even if the debate there too is far from settled,'' he adds.