On Aruna Shanbaug’s Birthday, Revisiting the Mercy Killing Debate
Aruna Shanbaug would be 69 today. Her story is one that redefines both hope and despair. After being sexually assaulted by a ward boy, she remained in a vegetative state for around 42 years before succumbing to pneumonia. Her case opened a judicial debate on euthanasia or mercy killing. Although the Supreme Court rejected the petition for euthanasia filed by journalist Pinki Virani, passive euthanasia was allowed in India in a landmark opinion.
On her birth anniversary, The Quint is republishing this opinion piece delving into the issue of euthanasia.
I must have been 13 or 14 years old, when my father played the role of a quadriplegic who fights for his right to die, in the Gujarati adaptation of Brian Clarks’ famous play Whose Life is it Anyway?
The play was called Baanshaya - A Bed of Arrows in a reference to the bed Bhishmapitahma lay down on to die. That was the first time I became aware of terms like mercy killing and euthanasia. That play left a deep impact on me and later, as I grew up reading about the Aruna Shanbaug case I would always wonder – “How did Aruna feel? Did she want to live like this?”
She was supposed to marry a colleague, Dr Desai. After she slipped into a coma, however, she continued living – an ‘extraordinary life’. A life she would never have imagined or chosen for herself and yet was forced to live it for 42 long years because our law wouldn’t permit euthanasia.
That hospital bed was most certainly her Baanshaya or Bed of Arrows. There’s no doubt that she was cared for with extreme love and affection – but how do we know if she really wanted to live like that? Would we?
My Mother-in-Law’s Desire for a Merciful Death
There’s something called quality of life and if we don’t have that, is life worth living?
My 74-year-old mother-in-law is very fit for her age, barring diabetes and a few aches and pains. She is also very proud of the fact that she isn’t dependant on us to look after her health. It is her fervent desire that she be active and take care of herself till her dying day.
Making euthanasia legal has been a huge debate and it’s been raging for years – not only in our country, but worldwide.
In India, the law doesn’t permit either active or passive euthanasia but in 2011 after the Aruna Shanbaug case, the Supreme Court had ruled in favour of passive euthanasia with certain strict safeguards. It said, the life support system can be withdrawn only on the recommendation of a panel of doctors after permission of the high court concerned on an application by family members or next friend.
These guidelines, the Centre said, shall remain in force until a law is framed.
Our government is now ready with a draft bill on passive euthanasia that gives patients the right to “withdraw medical treatment to herself or himself and allow nature to take its own course”. The Union health ministry last week uploaded the draft, titled Terminally Ill Patients Bill (protection of patients and medical practitioners) on its website – and has invited comments via email from people before June 19, 2016.
Remember How We Practised Euthanasia in the Olden Times?
So this here is my comment as a citizen of India.
Dear Law Makers,
We are the land which has practised Prayopavesa and Sallekhana for centuries.
Prayopavesa is a practice in Hinduism that denotes the suicide by fasting of a person, who has no desire or ambition left, and no responsibilities remaining in life. It is also allowed in cases of terminal disease or great disability. Committing Prayopavesa is bound by very strict regulations – like one’s inability to perform normal bodily purification, death appearing imminent, the fact that one’s condition is so bad that life’s pleasures are nil and that the action to end one’s life must be taken under community regulation. The decision to do so must be publicly declared, well in advance.
A similar practice exists in Jainism called Sallekhana, the religious ritual of leaving the body by fasting.
If such complex and humane rituals existed thousands of years ago in our country then maybe it’s time for us to wake up to these long forgotten practices and embrace our old customs ... Because I believe they’re worth reviving.
Please let’s not have any more Aruna’s in our country. Let each and every one of us have the dignity to choose our death if life becomes a Baanshaya – because after all, whose life is it anyway?
(Essentially actor. Full time mom. Part time dreamer. Sporadic blogger at ‘This, That & the Other’. Regular foodie who loves to travel.)