If the ghastly December 16 gangrape in New Delhi became a tipping point in hardening public opinion throughout India against sexual offences, Aru Shanbaug’s case served as a painful spur to the country’s collective conscience for four long decades. As the former nurse passed away quietly in a Mumbai hospital on Monday morning, public soul-searching has begun anew over the horror of sexual assault and the right to die with dignity. For 42 long years, Aru remained in a comatose vegetative state since her ordeal on the night of 27 November, 1973. A ward boy sexually assaulted her after tying her by a dog-chain around the neck to a hospital bed. This cut off oxygen supply to Aru’s brain, permanently damaging the brain stem as well as cervical cord. She was left brain dead and cortically blind ever since. Since that terrible night, she was artificially kept alive at the KEM hospital where she had been employed, as the case reverberated around the country. The rapist was caught and convicted, served his seven-year sentence and is now free. The doctor Aru had been engaged to, waited four years for her to revive, then married and settled abroad. As the years passed, the few relatives Aru had, stopped visiting her. Condemned to a living death, Aru became the face of a countrywide public debate on euthasia. After writing a book on Aru, author Pinki Virani sought mercy killing for her at the Supreme Court, pleading for Aru’s ‘unbearable agony’ to be put to an end.
With the KEM hospital’s magement and nursing staff strongly opposing the petition, the apex court rejected the plea for active euthasia in March 2011. But it did sanction passive euthasia – which meant withdrawing treatment and not offering regular food that the victim could not consume on her own. However, doctors and nurses at the hospital continued to provide care, celebrating her birthday every year. They maintained that while Aru was not aware of her surroundings, she seemed to recognise the presence of people in her small room. Deliverance filly came after the 67-year old suffered a fatal bout of pneumonia. In death, Aru Shanbaugh leaves behind some painful questions for Indian society to ponder over. Human beings have a right to life, but should it not be accompanied by the right to die with dignity? Is it fair to allow a human being to live in a vegetative state for years on end? A section of public opinion strongly favours active euthasia – through legally sanctioned, medically assisted suicide which involves giving deadly injections to patients of termil diseases suffering terrible pain. Only Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg have sanctioned active euthasia till date, an indication of how painfully difficult and complex the issue is for most countries. There are religious grounds for opposing the right to die as repugnt to ‘God’s will’. Emotiolly speaking, no family member or doctor can think of pulling the plug on a comatose or dying patient. Votaries of science argue that scientists may yet make breakthroughs that could help comatose patients revive and lead active lives again. But the question about some kind of cut-off date for a life turned into living death, as Aru Shanbaug’s case so poigntly shows, will continue to haunt us all.