WP (Criminal No.) 115 of 2009
AIR 2011 SC 1290, 2011 AIR SCW 1625
Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug
Union of India, State of Maharashtra, Dean- KEM Hospital Mumbai
Justice Markandey Katju, Justice Gyan Sudha Misra
March 07, 2011
Article 21 of Constitution of India, Section 309, 306 of Indian Penal Code
Brief Facts and Procedural History
Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug, the petitioner in this case, was a nurse at the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Parel, Mumbai. On the evening of November 27, 1973, a sweeper from the same hospital attacked her and used a dog chain to yank her back while wrapping it around her neck. Additionally, the sweeper attempted to rape her; however, when he discovered she was menstruating, he sodomized her instead. He tightened the chain around her neck in order to stop her from moving or causing any havoc. A cleaner discovered her body the following day, unconscious and covered in blood. It was thought that the chain’s strangulation caused the brain’s oxygen supply to stop, which led to brain damage. She entered a permanent vegetative state as a result of this incident, which permanently injured her brain (PVS). Later, journalist and activist Pinki Virani petitioned the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution, claiming there was no chance of her being resurrected and recovering. She ought to be released from her suffering and allowed to die through passive euthanasia.
The respondent parties, KEM Hospital, and Bombay Municipal Corporation submitted a counter-petition in response to this petition. The gaps between the two groups widened as a result. Due to the discrepancies, the Supreme Court appointed a group of three distinguished doctors to conduct an investigation and provide a report on the precise mental and physical state of Aruna Shanbaug. They thoroughly researched Aruna Shanbaug’s medical background and concluded that she is not brain dead. She responds differently depending on the situation. She favors fish soups and gentle religious music, for instance. If there are many people there, she feels uneasy and becomes upset. When there are fewer people around, she is at ease. The KEM Hospital personnel were adequately caring for her. She was constantly kept tidy. Additionally, they found no indication from Aruna’s body language that she was willing to end her life. Additionally, the KEM Hospital nursing team was more than happy to take care of her. Thus, the doctors opined that euthanasia in this matter is not necessary. She held this job for 42 years before passing away in 2015.
Issues before the Court
- Is it acceptable to remove a person’s life support systems and equipment if they are in a permanent vegetative state (PVS)?
- Should a patient’s preferences be honored if they have previously said that they do not want to undergo life-sustaining measures in the event of futile treatment or a PVS?
- Does a person’s family or next of kin have the right to request the withholding or removal of life-supporting measures if the individual has not made such a request already?
Decision of the Court
This decision was made on March 7, 2011, by the prestigious Supreme Court of India Division Bench, which also included Justices Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Mishra. The Transportation of Human Organs Act of 1994’s definition of brain death and the doctor’s report were both used by the court to rule that Aruna wasn’t brain dead. She didn’t need the assistance of a machine to breathe. She used to exhibit various signs and felt things. She was in a PVS, but she was still in stable condition. The justifications offered here are insufficient to end her life. It wouldn’t be acceptable. In addition, the court stated during its discussion of the matter that Pinki Virani would not be the next-of-kin in this particular situation, but rather the personnel of the KEM Hospital. Therefore, KEM Hospital has the authority to make any such choice on her behalf. In this instance, it was the food that she was relying on for survival. As a result, removing life-saving measures, in this case, would entail denying her sustenance, which is not permitted by Indian law in any way.
The Supreme Court recognized passive euthanasia under specific circumstances. The High Court would have to approve the decision to end a person’s life after following the proper procedure, the court decided, in order to prevent future abuse of this option.
When a request for passive euthanasia is made to the High Court, the Chief Justice of the High Court must convene a Bench of at least two justices to decide whether the request should be accepted or denied. Before rendering a decision, the Bench should take into account the advice of a panel of three reputable physicians. The Bench also proposes these physicians after consulting with the pertinent medical professionals. Along with appointing this committee, the court also has to notify the state, kin, family, and friends and provide them a copy of the committee of doctors’ report as soon as it is practical. After the court has heard from all parties, it should then issue its ruling. In India, this method must be followed up till relevant legislation is passed.
Aruna Shaunbaug was refused euthanasia in the end after taking into account all of the relevant facts of the case. The High Court further ruled that if the hospital staff ever feels the need for the same thing, they may petition the High Court in accordance with the established procedures. By giving a comprehensive framework of standards that must be fulfilled, the decision in this case has helped to clarify the concerns surrounding passive euthanasia in India. The court also suggested that Section 309 of the IPC be repealed. Every aspect of the case has been covered in detail. Now, let’s talk about the appearance of two crucial characteristics that emerged in this situation and have been addressed previously. The court also advocated for the abolition of IPC Section 309.
India is now among the nations that have legalized passive euthanasia. However, there are still flaws in the way passive euthanasia is carried out. It was a laborious process because it was mandated that every case obtain approval from the High Court after the Shanbaug case. Passive euthanasia is now more difficult to put into practice thanks to the new ruling, which calls for the execution of the directive in the presence of two witnesses, verification by a judicial magistrate, approval from two medical boards, and a jurisdictional collector. The fundamental goal of passive euthanasia is to terminate the suffering of the person in question, therefore this delay is a significant obstacle. On the other hand, if the process is made too liberal and simple, it is always open to serious abuse.
The Supreme Court established standards for passive euthanasia in the case of Aruna Shanbaug. These regulations allowed for the removal of a person’s life support system, which might ultimately result in death. Passive euthanasia is now legal in India under certain circumstances that will be ruled by the High Court. Later in 2018, the Supreme Court issued a new ruling in the case of Common Cause v. Union of India1, reinstating the right to a dignified death, legalizing passive euthanasia, and granting permission to remove life support from patients who are terminally ill and in a life-long coma. The Court also introduced the idea of “living wills” along with this. In these cases, the directions to be followed are-
- A Passive Euthanasia application must be pending with the relevant High Court. In any case, two appointed authorities must make up the Bench that the Chief Justice of the High Court appoints, and they will decide whether or not to approve the grant.
- The Bank must first consider the opinions of a three-person medical committee that it will select before making a decision. One of the three professionals should be an expert in the nerve system, while the other two should be specialists and therapists.
- When a person goes missing, the High Court Bench will notify the State and those closest to the missing individual, such as guardians, companions, siblings, and sisters.
- When it becomes available, the Court must send them a copy of the expert council report.
- After hearing from each gathering, the High Court’s seat must announce its decision.
- The Supreme Court must make a decision immediately. The court expressed its extreme gratitude to the KEM staff for their dedication over an extended period of time.
This case clarified the euthanasia-related concerns and established criteria for widespread euthanasia. In addition, the court recommended that Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code be repealed. The subject of passive euthanasia, which was previously hardly ever considered, started with this case. It significantly broadens the scope of Article 21 of our Constitution and explains the stance on the right to a dignified death. In the Indian context, this decision is hailed as progressive.
- WP © 215/2005
This article is written by Sanskar Garg, a last year student of School of Law, Devi Ahilya University, Indore.