Difficult decision


A petition has been filed in the supreme court on behalf of Aruna Shanbaug that she be allowed to die. The former nurse has been in a coma for the last 36 years, left blind, speechless and paralysed, her brain cells severely damaged by the dog chain her rapist used to strangle her. She is being kept alive by force feeding and is looked after by nurses at Mumbai’s KEM hospital, where she once worked. It is hard to be unmoved by the vegetative state in which she has remained for over three decades.  Aruna doesn’t live, she exists, say those who believe she must be allowed to die with dignity. The petition before the supreme court says her vegetative condition is a violation of her right to live with dignity, and hence she has a right to not be in this kind of sub-human condition. The right to life which is guaranteed by the Constitution has been described by the supreme court as right to living with human dignity. A life in a vegetative state is hardly one with human dignity. Indeed then, there is a strong case for recognizing an individuals right to die with dignity.

But the right to die is a principle that is not without its share of complications when it comes to practicing it. How do we know that a person who is believed to be in a vegetative state is not hearing, thinking or feeling? A recent case in Germany, where a patient who was thought to be in a vegetative state conveyed through his communicator that for the past 26 years he had been aware of events around him and had heard things told to him indicates that our understanding of the human body is far from complete. It raises questions about our capacity to decide on issues of assisted death. Aruna’s caregivers at the hospital say she seems to enjoy meat. How sure are we that she wants to die?

Implementing a court ruling in favour of Aruna’s right to die will be complicated. Generally, life support systems would be switched off.  This would not apply to Aruna, as she is not on a support system. In which case, will she be given lethal injection? Or denied food? Recognising an individuals right to die will throw open the floodgates. Do we have systems in place to ensure that unfair practices don’t creep in when deciding whether a person in a coma should be allowed to die?

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