SC admits paralysed sexual assault victim's plea to end life
17 December 2009
NEW DELHI: The plight of a 61-year-old women, who suffered a brutal sexual assault 36 years ago and has been lying in a vegetative state in a Mumbai hospital ever since, has moved the Supreme Court into setting aside its pro-life stance and examining the woman’s plea that her life be ended.
The woman, Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug, does not want to live any more. Doctors have told her there is no chance of any improvement in her state. So she, through her ‘next friend’ Pinki Virani, decided to move the SC with a plea to ‘‘direct KEM Hospital not to force-feed her’’.
‘‘Is this plea not akin to euthanasia?’’ asked a Supreme Court bench comprising Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan and Justices A K Ganguly and B S Chauhan, when the matter came up for hearing.
To this, her counsel Shekhar Naphade countered: ‘‘Is not keeping the woman in this persistent vegetative state by force-feeding violative of her right to live with dignity guaranteed by Article 21 (right to life) of the Constitution?’’
‘‘She is beyond cure. Let the court inquire about what medical science has in store for her. It appears there has been utter indifference of medical world towards her. The SC has to lay down some guideline in such cases,’’ he added.
The pro-life apex court, which had negated pleas of termination of pregnancy of a mentally retarded girl resulting from a rape at a Nari Niketan in Chandigarh and a similar plea from a Mumbai couple for terminating a diseased fetus, asked Naphade: ‘‘Do you mean right to life includes right to die?’’
Without taking the risk of hinging his arguments on that line, Naphade gave it a small tweak and said: ‘‘She is going through a torture of a life. Is this human rights? Should the medical authorities not be activated to do something? This is not a case to be left aside and forgotten. The apex court must lay down some guidelines.’’
Setting aside its previous position on the issue, the bench agreed to examine the merits of the petition and sought responses from the Union government, Maharashtra, Municipal Corporation of Brihan Mumbai, Commissioner of Mumbai Police and Dean of KEM Hospital. This is how her next friend — a legal term used for a person speaking on behalf of someone who is incapacitated — describes Shanbaug: ‘‘Her bones are brittle. Her skin is like ‘papier mache’ stretched over a skeleton. Her wrists are twisted inwards, her fingers are bent and fisted towards her palms, resulting in growing nails tearing into the flesh very often. Her teeth are decayed and giving her pain. Food is mashed and given to her in semi-solid form. She is in a persistent vegetative state.’’