12/17/2009, 00.00
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India split over euthanasia in a case involving a woman in coma for the past 36 years

by Nirmala Carvalho
The case of Aruna Shanbhag, 59, sparks a heated debate across India. For writer Pinki Virani, stop feeding and giving the patient water would be a humanitarian act, not euthanasia. India’s Supreme Court says, “Under the law of the country, we cannot allow a person to die.” For Mgr Dabre, a “culture of death” is increasingly taking hold in India.
Mumbai (AsiaNews) – A request to stop giving food and water to a 59-year-old coma patient is generating a heated debate across India. The woman, Aruna Shanbhag (pictured), was a nurse at the King Edward Memorial Hospital (KEM) in Mumbai when she was raped in 1973. As a result of the traumatic event, she went into a coma, without relatives to care for her. In a permanent vegetative state for the past 36 years in the same hospital where she worked, she has been cared for and fed by hospital nurses.

An attorney, Shekhar Nafde, has petitioned the court on behalf of writer Pinki Virani, who wrote about Aruna Shanbhag, to allow Aruna to die. Nafde explained that the request could not be construed as a plea for euthanasia. "This is no human right," he said. "Her life is worse than animal existence."

Euthanasia is illegal in India but the Aruna Shanbhag’s case and Pinki Virani’s request are causing a stir in the country.

Public opinion is divided between those who say that withdrawing food does not constitute euthanasia and those who believe that it would set a dangerous precedent and could lead euthanasia being treated as a humanitarian act.

In responding to the petition, the Supreme Court issued a notice, saying, “Under the law of the country, we cannot allow a person to die.”

Mgr Thomas Dabre, bishop of Pune and president of the Bishops’ Commission on Doctrine, welcome the Court’s statement recognising that the dignity of human life is not determined by a person’s physical condition.

Speaking to AsiaNews, the prelate did not hide his real concern about the case raised by Virani, because there are “dangerous trends in [Indian] society”.

For the bishop of Pune, support for euthanasia contradicts “Indian Scriptures and Indian traditions, [which] have for centuries propagated the values of life and [. . .] stood for [its] preservation”.

For Mgr Dabre, the fight for the right to die shows that man today “considers suffering as evil.” For him, “It is most unfortunate that medical and technological advances are used to end life.”

More importantly, “It is specious to argue that ending [Aruna Shanbhag’s] life, when persons are in such a state, is a manifestation of mercy and respect for the person”.

For Pascoal Carvalho, a physician and a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, the request to suspend treatment plays on two ambiguous notions, namely that food and water constitute a special form of healthcare, and that the request itself is not about euthanasia.

“As our society progresses toward a culture of death, the so-called ‘right-to-die’” could become “an obligation-to-die,” involving “for example, anyone who believes that they are a burden to someone else—either financially or otherwise.” Instead, “Life is valuable from its beginning to natural end,” he explained.

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