The plight of a 61-year-old women, who suffered a brutal s*xual assault 36 years ago and has been lying in a vegetative state in a Mumbai hospital ever since, has moved the Supreme Court into setting aside its pro-life stance and examining the woman’s plea that her life be ended.
The woman, Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug, does not want to live any more. Doctors have told her there is no chance of any improvement in her state. So she, through her ‘next friend’ Pinki Virani, decided to move the SC with a plea to ‘‘direct KEM Hospital not to force-feed her’’.
‘‘Is this plea not akin to euthanasia?’’ asked a Supreme Court bench comprising Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan and Justices A K Ganguly and B S Chauhan, when the matter came up for hearing.
To this, her counsel Shekhar Naphade countered: ‘‘Is not keeping the woman in this persistent vegetative state by force-feeding violative of her right to live with dignity guaranteed by Article 21 (right to life) of the Constitution?’’
‘‘She is beyond cure. Let the court inquire about what medical science has in store for her. It appears there has been utter indifference of medical world towards her. The SC has to lay down some guideline in such cases,’’ he added.
The pro-life apex court, which had negated pleas of termination of pregnancy of a mentally retarded girl resulting from a rape at a Nari Niketan in Chandigarh and a similar plea from a Mumbai couple for terminating a diseased fetus, asked Naphade: ‘‘Do you mean right to life includes right to die?’’
Without taking the risk of hinging his arguments on that line, Naphade gave it a small tweak and said: ‘‘She is going through a torture of a life. Is this human rights? Should the medical authorities not be activated to do something? This is not a case to be left aside and forgotten. The apex court must lay down some guidelines.’’
Setting aside its previous position on the issue, the bench agreed to examine the merits of the petition and sought responses from the Union government, Maharashtra, Municipal Corporation of Brihan Mumbai, Commissioner of Mumbai Police and Dean of KEM Hospital.
This is how her next friend — a legal term used for a person speaking on behalf of someone who is incapacitated — describes Shanbaug: ‘‘Her bones are brittle. Her skin is like ‘papier mache’ stretched over a skeleton. Her wrists are twisted inwards, her fingers are bent and fisted towards her palms, resulting in growing nails tearing into the flesh very often. Her teeth are decayed and giving her pain. Food is mashed and given to her in semi-solid form. She is in a persistent vegetative state.’’
Aruna Shanbaug was a nurse from Haldipur, Shimoga, Karnataka. In 1973, while she was working at KEM Hospital, Parel, Mumbai, she was assaulted by Sohanlal Bhartha Walmiki, a ward boy at the hospital. Walmiki was motivated partly by resentment for being ordered about and castigated by Shanbaug.
On the night of 27 November, 1973 he attacked her while she was changing clothes in the hospital basement for leaving her shift. He choked her with a dog chain and sodomized her. The asphyxiation during the course of the assault cut off oxygen supply to her brain resulting in brain stem contusion injury and cervical cord injury as well as leaving her cortically blind.
The initial medical examination to verify rape as the crime found that Aruna had no v**ginal bruises and her hymen was intact. Aruna was menstruating on the day and therefore the rapist did not penetrate her. Subsequent medical reports prove that she bled for days together from the anus.
The police case was registered as a case of robbery and attempted murder, but not rape on account of the concealment of anal rape by the doctors under the instructions of the Dean of KEM, the late Dr. Deshpande perhaps to avoid the social ostracisation which might break her impending marriage to her young doctor fiancé, Dr. Sundeep Sardesai. Since the assault she has been in a vegetative state till date.
Following the attack, nurses went on strike to demand improved working conditions in Mumbai hospitals and better treatment for Shanbaug.
Author and journalist Pinki Virani’s first book Aruna’s Story, about Aruna Shanbag hit the headlines in 1998.