New Delhi: Aruna Shanbaug has not walked or spoken a word in 37 years. Since she was raped by a sweeper at her hospital in 1973, she has not left the hospital where she was once a bright capable nurse. Nurses change her diapers, feed her and calm her when she gets restless - usually if there are more than a few people in her room at Mumbai's King Edward Memorial (KEM) Hospital.
Her condition has been described as semi-comatose and vegetative. But the Supreme Court today ruled that euthanasia is not a permissible option for Ms Shanbaug - at least not on the basis of the current appeal. "We have no indication of Aruna Shanbaug's views or wishes," the judges said.
A petition for euthanasia was first filed for Ms Shanbaug by Pinky Virani, a journalist who has written a book on the woman who she says is being forced to live her life stripped of basic dignity. The Supreme Court praised Ms Virani's concern, but ruled that her relationship with the patient does not give her right to petition on Ms Shanbaug's behalf for a mercy killing. The only party that can appeal for euthanasia for Ms Shanbaug is the staff of KEM Hospital which has nursed her since she was discovered in the basement, an iron chain around her neck, 11 hours after she had been sodomized by a ward boy who she had scolded for stealing food that was meant for stray animals adopted by the hospital. The chain used to strangle her had cut off the supply of oxygen to her brain. The damage was irreversible.
Ms Shanbaug has, however, changed forever India's approach to the contentious issue of euthanasia. The verdict on her case today allows passive euthanasia contingent upon circumstances. So other Indians can now argue in court for the right to withhold medical treatment - take a patient off a ventilator, for example, in the case of an irreversible coma. Today's judgement makes it clear that passive euthanasia will "only be allowed in cases where the person is in persistent vegetative state or terminally ill." (Read: What is passive euthanasia?)
In each case, the relevant high court will evaluate the merits of the case, and refer the case to a medical board before deciding on whether passive euthanasia can apply. And till Parliament introduces new laws on euthanasia, it is Ms Shanbaug's case that is to be used as a point of reference by other courts.
The judge who says that a CD he reviewed of Ms Shanbaug shows "She is certainly not brain-dead. She expresses her likes or dislike with sounds and movements. She smiles when given her favourite food...she gets disturbed when many people enter her room and calms down when touched gently."
Ms Virani issued this statement after his verdict. "Because of the Aruna Shanbaug case, the Supreme Court of India has permitted Passive Euthanasia, which means that Aruna's state will worsen with persistent diarrhoea as her body cannot handle much of that being put through the pipe; no catheter to catch body fluids and waste matter which excrete themselves; lengthening response times due to a 'sinking'. But, because of this woman who has never received justice, no other person in a similar position will have to suffer for more than three-and-a-half decades."
At the hospital which is Ms Shanbuag's home, nurses celebrated the verdict by distributing sweets. We will share a small piece with her to, said one of them. The medical attention they have lavished on Ms Shanbug was praised by the judge today in his verdict.
But in an allusion that suggests he was aware of exactly how tough Ms Shanbaug's life is, he quoted the poet Mirza Ghalib too. "Marte hain aarzoo mein marne ki...maut aati hai par nahin aati (I die for Death, Death knocks, but comes not...)".