Is it ethical to prolong a life in pain?

She became one more screaming headline in the media. The mother of all breaking stories. Journalists had a field day in living and reliving one of the most heinous crimes in the history of this country. In fact, it was a history of two crimes. Or, even several crimes for that matter – involving morality, ethics, the legal system and medicine.

A woman is hounded, raped, sodomised and finally left to die in the basement of a hospital. That was crime number one.

The same woman is again revived, strapped to a hospital bed, force fed with a tube and attached to a ventilator to die a slow and painful death. That was crime number two.
The third is even more unforgivable. Her beastly persecutor who ruined her life beyond hope is allowed to roam freely after a token jail term.

The next crime was diverting precious hospital resources – with their acute shortage of beds, doctors and nurses – to a brain dead person who was in a vegetative state with no promise of recovery at the cost of nursing and treating sick patients.

Crime number five was the violation of a court order (that permitted passive euthanasia in the case of the unfortunate woman) by her own doctors and nurses.

The last curious transgression was the public commendation of the same doctors and nurses for their “heroic efforts” to keep a brain dead and vegetative patient alive for an incredible 42 years even though they were aware that her every living moment was painfully traumatic.      

 It is surprising that the same hospital staff who nursed her untiringly – “she was our sister, mother, daughter” – did not raise their voices to condemn and punish the man who victimised her although he was an employee of the same hospital. Nor did they fight with equal determination and passion for his proper punishment.

It is said that 800 nurses attended to her needs and countless doctors struggled to keep her theoretically alive. Yet, not one demanded proper justice for her through legal methods or public opinion. On the other hand, they violated the order passed by the highest court in the land to terminate her life.

Would it not have been kinder, both to Aruna Shanbaugh and to other patients in greater need of medical attention or nursing care, to end her life peacefully?  
 It is also surprising that the media failed to take up this issue all those years and fight for true justice to be meted out – not only to a comatose patient, but to her persecutor as well.

Why did not our articulate activists move courts and create public awareness about the enormity of a crime vis-a-vis its tame punishment?

Theatrics galore
Not only should the doctors and nurses of KEM hospital have terminated Aruna’s pathetic life. They should have fought with the same grit and determination to punish the man who committed the crime against her in the first place.

Considering all these issues, there has been more theatre than humanity in this case. Sadly and ironically, the story of Aruna Shanbaugh merely made “good copy.”  
 True, euthanasia has no easy answers. In countries where it is legalised, it may be simpler for doctors, patients and their families to end needless suffering. But the odds against it continue to remain insurmountable.

Even where it is allowed on medical grounds, there are religious issues to contend with. When people are conditioned to believe that life is sacred – of course it is, as long as it can be lived in dignity - it ends with a patient forced to endure the worst kind of traumatic experiences.

Societal pressures also influence families to let a loved one suffer agonies rather than end it all. Finally, the doctors who play a key role in this matter are also weighed down with compulsions that bind them to save lives rather than kill them.

They cannot be blamed because they are walking on a slippery slope where their medical judgement cannot be exercised freely because of countless social and legal compulsions.
No wonder the medical profession across the country welcomed the Supreme Court's decision in 2011 to legalise passive euthanasia or withdrawal of medical treatment in terminally ill cases. 

A well known physician’s comment – “every doctor, at some point of time comes across a case where the patient is severely ill and there is no scope of improvement when the doctor has to accelerate the process of death ……..”  – says it all.

Ultimately, it is a matter of love and compassion which should be the overruling factors when faced with the dilemma of whether to let a person live in agony or let her go peacefully.

Unfortunately, Aruna Shanbaugh was denied both in the true sense.

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