As the Aruna Shanbaug case demonstrates, India needs a modern euthanasia law
For the seven-year prison sentence Aruna Shanbaug’s assailant got, the former nurse at Mumbai’s King
Edward Memorial (KEM) Hospital, served a sentence six times as long. When she died on Monday, she had been confined to a bed in KEM for 42 years, surviving on the goodwill of the nurses at the hospital. All these years, her brain did not process anything beyond rudimentary bodily functions such as feeding and excretion. It was in this backdrop that journalist Pinki Virani had approached the Supreme Court with a plea to euthanise Shanbaug. Though the court made passive euthanasia, or the gradual withdrawal of all life support, legal in India, it imposed such stringent conditions for it to apply—thanks to the KEM nurses unrelentingly resisting Virani’s attempt—that Shanbaug never got the release she deserved.
The costs of keeping a person in a permanent vegetative state alive are enormous. Given how pitifully limited assisted living options are in India, such responsibilities nearly always fall on the shoulders of the already strained healthcare institutions. Hospitals and hospices that could have served patients for whom recovery is possible instead have to look after those who are, for almost all purposes, already gone. Which is why India needs a modern euthanasia law, one that allows for active euthanasia (where death is brought about through medical and pharmacological intervention) with appropriate safeguards to prevent misuse. Apart from saving a lot of out-of-pocket or state expenditure on health for many families, it would give many a suffering patients a merciful release.