ARUNA RAMACHANDRA SHANBAUG v/s UNION OF INDIA

By – Pragya Shukla

  IN THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA

NAME OF THE CASE ARUNA RAMCHANDRA SHANBAUG v/s UNION OF INDIA
JURISDICTION THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA
CITATIONAIR 2011, 4SCC 454
 
DATE OF THE CASE7th MARCH, 2011
PETITIONERARUNA RAMACHANDRA SHANBAUG
RESPONDENTUNION OF INDIA
BENCH/ JUDGEMARKANDEY KATJU, GYAN SUDHA MISHRA
 
STATUTES/ CONSTITUTION INVOLVEDINDIAN PENAL CODE,1860 & THE CONSTITUTION OF INDIA
IMPORTANT ARTICLES/ SECTIONS INVOLVEDARTICLES 14, 21& 32 OF THE CONSTITUTION OF INDIA, SECTIONS 306 & 309 OF THE INDIAN PENAL CODE, 1860

ABSTRACT: –

In India’s judicial system, judgments are extremely for setting a precedent that serves as the foundation for the delivery of justice. Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug vs Union of India is one of the prominent and inquisitive cases of the decade in which euthanasia and a person’s right to die have been discussed.

The right to life is a sacred fundamental right that includes various rights like the right to livelihood, the right to a clean environment and many more. In medical jurisprudence, the right to die has become an inevitable thing and there is also the potential for abuse of this right by the members of the family. This landmark ruling set the guidelines and conditions under which passive euthanasia could be granted.

INTRODUCTION: –

“Euthanasia is the struggle between life and death.” It has been proved that life is a gift of God but death is not. The struggle for life and death is distinguished by euthanasia and suicide. Suicide means intentionally ending one’s life or killing oneself deliberately but euthanasia is not intentionally killing oneself. The factors leading to suicide are different from euthanasia. Suicide is a punishable offence under Sec. 309 0f IPC but passive euthanasia is allowed in India.

Voluntary euthanasia is where consent is taken from the patient, whereas non-voluntary euthanasia is where consent is unavailable or cannot be obtained. For example, if a patient is in a coma or a Permanent Vegetative State (PVS) consent cannot be logically expressed by him.

Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug v Union of India explained the issues revolving around euthanasia and laid down guidelines regarding passive euthanasia. The case is a landmark decision as it recommended the continuation of this practice in a place that has not been administered, where a law has not yet been made by the Parliament. In India, active euthanasia is illegal whereas passive euthanasia can be administered by following the pre-requisites set by the court.

BACKGROUND OF THE CASE: –

The Constitution of India provides the right to life to all its citizens through Article 21. Although the concept of euthanasia is very popular in western countries, it has received mixed responses in India. Moreover, if the right to life is a fundamental right then whether the right to die cannot be included in its purview is an enduring debate. It is believed Indian Constitution provides equality to all, sick or healthy yet it is lacking in the context of euthanasia as it does not allow the benefit of voluntary death even though the Indian Constitution guarantees equality of law and the right to life under articles 14 &21 respectively. Since in the case of euthanasia, there is discrimination between sick and healthy persons it indirectly violates Article 14 and Article 21 of the Constitution.

In India, voluntary death is taken as an attempt to suicide causing a criminal offence and is subject to criticism and condemnation since society and law are based on ‘non-violence’. The concept of euthanasia has shaken the entire concept of non-violence and it is believed that if it is allowed in both forms it will lead to many involuntary deaths which will indirectly lead to violence.

“Abetment to suicide and attempt to commit suicide is a violation of the right to life”. Abetment to suicide is an offence under section 306 of I.P.C. and attempt to commit suicide is a punishable offence under Sec. 309 IPC. These offences are a violation of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution which guarantees the right to life and personal liberty but it does not include the right to die, so active euthanasia is a violation of the right to life.  The Supreme Court of India faced a petition under Article 32 of the Constitution to consider the termination of the life of Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug, who was in a permanent vegetative state. The petition was filed by her ‘’next friend’ Ms Pinky Virani.

The Court categorically denied the right to death in all the previous cases but considering the gravity of the situation, it ratified the petition to decide on the stance of euthanasia in India.

FACTS OF THE CASE: –

  • Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug was a staff nurse working at King Edward Memorial Hospital, Parel, Mumbai.
  • On the evening of 27 November 1973, she was harassed by a cleaner named Sohanlal Bhartha Walmiki at the clinic, who wrapped a dog chain around her neck and shook her back with it.
  •  He tried to rape her but finding that she was menstruating, he had unnatural sex with her. He sodomized her and tied the chain around her neck in order to stabilize her during the brutal act.
  • After practising the heinous crime, he left her in the dreadful condition on the floor.
  • The next day, a sweeper found her in an unknowing condition lying on the floor and her body covered in blood.
  •  It was confirmed that strangulation by the dog chain stopped the oxygen supply to the brain and damaged the brain.
  • This whole incident changed Aruna’s life completely. She went in a Permanent Vegetative State (PVS) and became virtually dead.  
  • Thus, a writ petition was filed by her close friend Ms. Pinky Virani to grant passive euthanasia so that Aruna could die in peace.

ISSUES RAISED BEFORE THE COURT-

Subsequent issues were raised before the Court-

  • Whether Article 21 of the Constitution includes the right to die or not ?
  • Whether withholding or withdrawing life-saving  treatments in a Permanent Vegetative State (PVS) of a person should be  permissible or not ?
  • Whether the family members or dear ones can make the choice on behalf of patient in case of Euthanasia or not?
  • What is the basic difference between Active Euthanasia and Passive Euthanasia?

    ARGUMENTS: –

 ARGUMENTS RAISED BY THE PETITIONER: –

  • It was contended that Aruna Shanbaug was in Persistent Vegetative State (PVS) and virtually dead with no state of awareness.
  • It was further contended that she couldn’t see, hear or express herself. She wasn’t in a position to communicate in any way.
  • It was stated that she was surviving on mashed food and wasn’t capable of moving her hands and legs.
  • It was alleged that there wasn’t any chance of improvement in her condition and her body was lying on the bed like a dead body in KEM Hospital in Mumbai for the last 36 years.
  • The neurologist at the hospital found that the brain’s cortex was damaged by a brain stem injury often termed as a cervical cord injury.
  • Aruna’s close friend Pinky Virani requested that the respondent should stop feeding Aruna and let her die in peace.

ARGUMENTS RAISED BY THE RESPONDENT: –

The following contentions were raised before the court by the respondent: –

  • Medical Ethics:   It was contended that medical ethics requires care and treatment and promotes not to end the life of the patient. Medical science is progressing rapidly and even incurable diseases can be cured. Thus, instead of encouraging a patient to end their life, physicians must encourage patients to live their painful life with vigor and courage.
  • Moral Wrong: It was further objected that taking one’s life is morally wrong. The value of life can never be underestimated and should always be considered precious.
  • Disabled Groups will become more vulnerable to it:  It was stated that groups of vulnerable people will feel compelled to opt euthanasia as they often consider themselves as a burden to society.
  • The conflict between suicide and euthanasia:  It was objected that if suicide is not allowed then euthanasia should also be allowed. A person commits suicide when he goes into a state of depression and has no hope from life. A similar situation occurs when a person seeks euthanasia. But by taking proper care of such patients and showing hope in them, such tendency can be reduced.
  • Occurrence of Miracles:  It was contended that miracles happen in our society, especially when it is a matter of life and death, there are many examples of people coming out of coma after years and human life is about hope. Thus, passive euthanasia shouldn’t be granted.

RELATED PROVISIONS: –

      THE CONSTITUTION OF INDIA

  • ARTICLE 14 OF THE CONSTITUTION OF INDIA-

Article 14 states that no person shall be denied equality before the law or equal protection of the laws in the territory of India. This right is given to all persons, whether they are citizens or foreigners, statutory corporations, companies, registered entities or any other legal person.

  • ARTICLE 21 OF THE CONSTITUTION OF INDIA-

Article 21 declares that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law. This right is available to both citizens and non-citizens. The right to life is not limited to the existence of humans but includes the right to live with human dignity and all aspects of life that make human life meaningful, complete and worth living.

  • ARTICLE 32 OF THE CONSTITUTION OF INDIA-

 The right to move to the Supreme Court by appropriate proceedings for the enforcement of the rights conferred to a person is guaranteed under Article 32.

      INDIAN PENAL CODE: –

  • SECTION 306 OF IPC, 1860-

If any person commits suicide, whoever abets such suicide, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years and shall also be liable to fine.

  • SECTION 309 OF IPC, 1860-

Whoever attempts to commit suicide and practices any act of such offence shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or shall be liable to pay fines or both.

   JUDGEMENT: –

The court held that in the context of a critical situation of PVS, the right to die is not premature termination of life, but it hastens the process of death. The right to live with human dignity should also include death with dignity curbing mental and physical pain.

The court-appointed a team of three doctors to examine Ms Shanbaug and asked them to submit a report about her physical and mental condition. Although the court did not allow Ms Shanbaug to withdraw the medical treatment, it discussed the issue of euthanasia in detail and allowed passive euthanasia. It defined “passive euthanasia” as the withdrawal of treatment to cause the patient’s death.

The Supreme Court held that the right to live includes the right to die with dignity. It stated that passive euthanasia is permitted if the doctors act based on notified medical opinion and withdraw life support in the best interest of the patient.

The Court clarified the issues related to euthanasia and also laid down guidelines regarding euthanasia on a large scale along with the recommendation of the repeal of Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code.

CONCLUSION: –

Enacting laws is not the solution to every problem we face in our daily life. Mercy killing is not a common condition but a very rare and critical one. It is only one in thousands of cases where physicians come across patients with chronic diseases where euthanasia is considered. It is practical to consider euthanasia in the case of a patient with PVS stage but it is not apt for every such case. It is important to assess the practical work behind the legalization of euthanasia in India. In countries where euthanasia is legal in all aspects, the practice of the same has turned into a convention. It cannot be said that the practice is full proof and without flaws in those countries.

In the case of Euthanasia, the nation and the citizens go through a radical change in the medical field considering the humanitarian approach which further develops the mindset of the entire community, leading to the formation of an opinion about choosing death over life. This understanding has been passed down for generations now, which is quite revolutionary. India needs maturity to handle this issue and understand its pros and cons well. After the case of Jian Kaur, suicide itself became illegal, but the same could not be said for euthanasia.

The Supreme Court judgment in Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug v Union of India legalized passive euthanasia and observed that in exceptional circumstances passive euthanasia is permitted under the supervision of law but active euthanasia is not permitted under law.  Euthanasia should be implemented with adequate safeguards. The recommendations made in the report of the Law Commission of India and the guidelines in Aruna’s case are to be taken into account when any law is to be framed to prevent malpractice and the abuse of euthanasia.

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