"Good death" or "bad life"
How painful and excruciating can life get that one wishes to put a premature end to it? Who decides whether we should live or die when embracing death seems far more soothing than an agonizing existence which cannot be termed as ‘living’ in the true sense of the term? Well in a country like ours unlike Netherlands, Luxemburg, USA, United Kingdom where euthanasia or ‘mercy killing’ as it is known in common parlance, either in its active or passive form has been legalized, we let nature take its course.
Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug, who has been confined to one of the rooms of King Edward Medical College, Mumbai for the past 37 years has earned the world record of being the longest staying patient in any hospital. But this is definitely not the reason behind her being the talk of the town. She has been ‘living’ in a vegetative state, her eyes staring voidly at nothing in particular since the night of November 27th 1973. The reason being a ward boy who had tied a dog chain around her neck, thereby cutting off air supply to parts of her brain and had sodomized her in the basement of the hospital.
Journalist-activist, Pinki Virani’s plea of euthanasia for Aruna Shanbaug has once again raised the question in our minds-How merciful and benignant is our judiciary and if Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees to its citizens the right to live with human dignity then why are the terminally ill not awarded a dignified departure from their distressful and discomforting lives?
The Union Government has rejected the Law Commission’s recommendations on euthanasia.The commission in its 126th report had recommended to the government, “if a person is unable to take normal care of his body or has lost all senses and if his real desire is to quit the world,he cannot be compelled to continue with a painful life. Hence a dying man who is terminally ill or is in persistent vegetative state can be permitted to terminate it by premature extinction of life.” G E Vahanvati, the attorney general of India thinks otherwise. He has been quoted as saying that western norms are not applicable to Indian conditions and culture. Moreover the plea for euthanasia if granted may be misused by the relatives of the patients in collusion with the doctors. Amicus curiae and senior advocate T R Andhyarujina is of the opinion that the nurses and staff of KEM hospital who have taken care of her for 37 long years have made no such plea. This is where the problem lies. The hospital’s counsel, advocate Pallav Shisodia too has opined that since the nurses and staff have made no such plea, the petition submitted by Virani should be dismissed.
Dr Ravindra Dhelia, a member of the Society for the Right to Die with Dignity says, “Voluntary euthanasia is not about ending a life but it is about ending a deadened survival. As far as Aruna is concerned, mercy killing is a dignified exit.” But Sanjay Oak, dean of KEM hospital begs to differ.KEM has issued a factual counter-affidavit stating, among other things, that Aruna is “haemodynamically stable”, her “blood pressure, pulse rate are normal” and that the hospital is taking care of her because her relatives refused to do so.
Some questions still remain unanswered- who decides whether death is more precious to some than mere animal existence? Whose views should be taken into account if at all euthanasia is legalized in this country-the patient’s or those who look after him? Which of the two is more painful-to see one who is terminally ill slowly pass into oblivion or to be in such a state which guarantees no dignity but is still called ‘life’? Undoubtedly Aruna’s case is dicey. Although Pinki Virani’s intentions are not malafide the question that the dean of KEM has raised is,”unless the ailing person himself or herself expresses the desire who are we to decide that he or she should no longer live?”
Aruna may be considered lucky in one way or the other since her plight has seen the light of the day. There are several cases in our country and around the world where death has taken its own sweet time to ease the sufferings of those for whom one extra breath that they take is more horrendous than death itself. Undoubtedly the right to live with human dignity does not guarantee us the right to end our lives according to our whims and fancies but is the life of a man in a persistent vegetative condition worth living? Until euthanasia is legalized in our country I am forced to ask the million dollar question again ,”does the life of a terminally ill patient come within the purview of the term ‘life’ as we understand it under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution”? If the answer is no then it is high time that this country does something worthwhile in this regard.