Aruna Shanbaug lives on. The Mumbai hospital nurse, who was raped and strangled by a ward boy some forty years ago, has eventually forced a re-think on the right of terminally ill persons to end their lives under certain circumstances in adherence to a few welcome guidelines. The Supreme Court last week further expanded the right of chronically ill persons in vegetative state to determine whether or not to continue to live in that comatose state.
There are a number of individuals all across the social and economic spectrum who fall into that state of near-lifelessness due to circumstances beyond the control of the medical science. For instance, former Union Minister Priyaranjan Dasmumshi had been in that vegetative state for nearly a decade before his death last year. The court judgement now allows individuals to draft a ‘living will’ which his relatives and doctors can execute should he get so ill that recovery seems impossible. The decision to pull the plug on the life-support systems will have to be taken in consultation with the doctors. Whether poor or rich, terminally ill patients without any hope of recovery pose a huge moral dilemma to near and dear ones. Families are economically ruined spending on the care of such individuals since neither law nor morality seemed to sanction termination of life of such patients.
Now, the legal obstacle stands removed. However, there is a danger of ‘active euthanasia’ being exploited by unscrupulous people for extraneous reasons. Euthanasia is already practised in some religions. The court has disapproved ‘active euthanasia’, while laying down guidelines which actually put the onus on the medical fraternity to ensure that the chronically ill patients whose life is sought to be terminated cannot recover from medicine. In the case of Aruna Shanbaug, though she lay comatose for decades, the problem arose because she had no relatives to decide on her behalf. Eventually, a court-approved medical board took the decision to terminate her life, relieving her misery. Hopefully, the right to terminate life of the chronically ill will be used sparingly, and not be abused for ulterior purposes.