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March 06, 2011

India's Supreme Court Rules on Euthanasia

India’s Supreme Court ruled on Monday that life support can be removed for some terminally ill patients, allowing what is being called "passive euthanasia."

The court however rejected a plea to end the life of a woman who has been in a vegetative state for 37 years.

The Supreme Court judgment came in connection with the case of a former nurse, Aruna Shanbaug, who has been lying in a Mumbai hospital since she was brutally raped in 1973 at the age of 23.

The assault resulted in severe brain damage and paralysis. Since then, Shanbaug has been in a vegetative state, which is different from a coma because it means she is "clinically"  awake. She is fed twice a day by nurses.

The Supreme Court rejected a plea by a journalist that she should not be fed, and be allowed to die with dignity. The journalist, who has written a book about her, said she was virtually dead.

In a report to the Court, doctors who are caring for her said Shanbaug responds by facial expressions. The Supreme Court said that the journalist could not make the demand on her behalf.

Shanbaug’s parents died many years ago and relatives have not been in touch.

But in a significant observation, the Supreme Court said that doctors and nurses could petition to remove life support for some terminally ill patients, provided the request is supervised by High Courts.

The Court said that so-called "active euthanasia" is illegal. But it said "passive euthanasia," which essentially means the removal of life support, is permissible.

Responding to the Supreme Court’s ruling, India’s law Minister Veerappa Moily said a serious debate is needed on the wider issue of euthanasia. He said there are no easy answers.

"There is no law to grant any such permission," he said. "This is a very serious matter. We need to understand it in a world context, and also in the context of (the) attitude "we need to examine with all angles."

Many lawyers and doctors have expressed support for the Supreme Court’s ruling on passive euthanasia. They say this will help some terminally-ill patients.

The ruling is likely to spark a fresh debate on the subject of euthanasia, which is illegal in India.  There are some concerns it could be misused if legalized.