Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Life of misery or death of dignity ... the Aruna Shanbaug Case

“… right to life guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution does not include the right to die,” the two-judge bench of the Supreme Court said while delivering the verdict on a petition plea to allow an end to the life of Aruna Shanbaug, an ex-nurse with Mumbai’s KEM Hospital. Aruna has been languishing at the same hospital for almost four long decades in a persistently vegetative state. However, the court made way for passive euthanasia, on a case-to-case basis and after the necessary medical and legal due diligence.

Doctors across the nation hailed the verdict, saying the Apex Court legalised a procedure already practised in India for years, on critically ill patients. Many doctors have argued in the past that withdrawing treatment or life support allows dignified conclusion to the life of a terminally ill and terribly suffering individual, while freeing families and friends of unbearable emotional and financial burden.

Active euthanasia, mercy killing, assisted suicide, whatever may be the term used, to me are one and the same – relieving an individual of the never ending misery of a critical illness at its terminal stages and allowing a safe and dignified passage into the inevitable. Religious leaders across India, didn’t seem to be too happy with the verdict, still clinging on to the 16th century idea of only God has right to take our lives and no one else. My simple submission is then why are more and more religiously instigated people as well as state owned military forces being inspired to end millions of innocent lives across the world?

Interestingly, Santhara, a ritual of fasting unto voluntary death is an option with the Jains, similar to Prayopavesa amongst the Hindus. Apparently, the vow of Santhara is taken only when one consciously realises that one’s life has already served its purpose. Glaring precedence of Santhara being practised is glaring, when two elderly Jain women from Jaipur availed the option, less than a decade ago. If a conscious individual can take decisive call on life’s termination on apparent lack of purpose, why couldn’t one enjoy the right to dignified death over miserable and forced existence? Has time come for us to revisit some of our conformist moralities?

Aruna, a young nurse and fiancĂ©e to a medical practitioner at KEM, got brutally raped, tortured and strangulated by a ward boy, passed into a semi comatose state. Even 37 years after the incident, she never recovered from her vegetative state. Aruna’s fiancĂ© moved on to get married and settled in the USA. The ward boy served a term of seven years for attempted murder (he wasn’t convicted of rape, apparently to save Aruna of social ostracism she might have faced, once she recovered and rejoined the mainstream! ... outrageous to say the least!). Incidentally, the ward boy after having served his term, returned to harm Aruna, to avenge his sentence. Batches after batches of trainees at KEM nursed Aruna, under the supervision of senior matrons (who also consider Aruna an iconic representation of their fight against abuse and violence against women staff in hospitals and medical centres) gaining an excellent hands-on training on treating terminally-ill patients. Activists captured head turning headlines filing petitions and giving bytes. The media drove a commercially rewarding frenzy and the controversy loving Indians got another issue to raise storm over their proverbial coffee cups. The only person who seems to have faced the entire ordeal is Aruna herself. Everyone else seems inclined to prove that Aruna still has reasons to breathe. Everyone else seems to have a reason or the other for Aruna to live on, save Aruna Shanbaug herself. Is this irony of fate or a fallacy of life?

I am still beleaguered to accept the fact that this verdict of no one has the right to actively terminate anyone else’s life has been pronounced by the state’s legal system which still upholds capital punishment as a mode of punishment and social retribution. Poetic justice, indeed!!

Pics courtesy: The Times of India