The death of an Indian nurse who was in a coma for 42 years after being sexually assaulted while working in a hospital has prompted a renewed debate on euthanasia in the country.
Aruna Shanbaug suffered severe brain damage and was in a vegetative state after she was raped and strangled with a dog chain by a hospital sweeper in Mumbai, the Indian commercial capital, in 1973. She was 25.
Shanbaug was diagnosed with pneumonia last week and had been on a life-support system for the past few days, said Pravin Bangar, medical superintendent at the city’s King Edward Memorial hospital.
Her case first sparked arguments over India’s euthanasia laws after Pinki Virani, a Mumbai-based author and friend of the nurse, petitioned the courts to stop force-feeding her through a tube so her suffering would not be prolonged.
In 2011, India’s supreme court rejected a petition filed by Virani, who had sought euthanasia for Shanbaug, saying the court should “end her unbearable agony”.
However the bench of two judges did say that “passive euthanasia” would be permitted under certain circumstances, but only if, in the case of Shanbaug, the hospital itself made the request.
“Aruna Shanbaug’s parents are dead and other close relatives have not been interested in her ever since she had the unfortunate assault on her,” the judgment read. “It is the KEM hospital staff, who have been amazingly caring for her day and night for so many long years, who really are her next friends … Hence it is for [them] to take that decision.”
The case had been opposed by nurses at the hospital, who cared for Shanbaug for more than four decades after her family said they were unable to support her. They celebrated the judgment as a “rebirth” of Shanbaug.
The nurse’s death has now provoked renewed calls for the law to be reviewed. On the Firstpost news website on Monday, editor-in-chief R Jagannathan said the “time for more waffle on assisted suicide is over”.
“We need a proper law on euthanasia with strong safeguards. The right to die with dignity is an inalienable part of the right to life,” Jagannathan wrote.
Senior medical staff who have overseen Shanbaug’s care have described euthanasia as a western concept which is not easily accepted in India. On Monday, several told reporters that they were relieved the nurse had died a “natural death”.
“We look at life differently. Our culture believes in nurturing life till the end. And we will care for Aruna till the very end,” Shubhangi Parkar, dean of the hospital, told the Times of India newspaper last year.
Shanbaug’s attacker served a seven-year sentence in prison after being convicted of robbery and attempted murder after evidence of penetration was removed from a medical report.