Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug v. Union of India & Ors

DATE OF JUDGMENT: 07/03/2011

COURT: Supreme Court of India

JUDGES: Justice Markandey Katju and Justice Gyan Sudha Misra

REFERENCE: AIR 2011 SC 1290

PARTIES:

Petitioner: Ms. Pinki Virani on behalf of Aruna Ramchandra Shaunbaugh. Respondent:  Union of India

SUBJECT: The judgment revolves around a substantive question of law, as to whether the term right to life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution includes right to die which is more of a negative aspect. Further, it also raises a question of whether the decisional autonomy of an individual to decide his personal matters can be interpreted to an extant that the individual has the right to end his life at his discretion.

FACTS: Aruna Ramachandra Shaunbaugh was a staff Nurse working at Kind Edward Memorial hospital, Parel, Mumbai. At the workplace, a sweeper tried to rape her and when he found that she was on her menstrual cycle he sodomised and left her strangulated. The next day she was hospitalised by a staff who found her lying on the floor with blood all over in an unconscious state. The incident dates back to 27th November 1973 but when the case was brought before the SC in 2011 around 37 years passed away leaving her in a pitiable health condition. Though she was abandoned by her family members the nurses of KEM

hospital took good care of her. Later, Ms. Pinki Virani who claimed to be the next friend of Aruna Ramachandra Shaunbaugh filed a writ of mandamus in the SC under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution to direct the respondents to stop feeding Aruna, and let her die peacefully.

IMPORTANT PROVISIONS:

The Indian Constitution.

  • Article 21: No person shall be deprived of his life and personal liberty except according to the due procedure established by law.
  • Article 32: Remedies for enforcement of rights conferred by Part III
  • (1) The right to move the Supreme Court by appropriate proceedings for the enforcement of the rights conferred by this Part is guaranteed.
  • (2) The Supreme Court shall have power to issue directions or orders or writs, including writs in the nature of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, quo warranto and certiorari, whichever may be appropriate, for the enforcement of any of the rights conferred by this Part.

The Indian Penal Code.

  • Section 309: Attempt to commit suicide.—Whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall he punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year 1[or with fine, or with both]
  • Section 306: Abetment of suicide.—If any person commits suicide, whoever abets the commission of such suicide, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.
ISSUES:
  1. Whether right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution includes right to die?
  2. Whether section 306 and 309 of IPC Constitutionally valid?
ANALYSIS OF THE JUDGEMENT:

The Court in the preliminary stage of the case contended upon the maintainability of the petition under Article 32 as the petitioner did not establish any fundamental right violation. However, considering that there was a substantial question of law whether right to life under Article 21 includes right to die, the Court allowed the petition.

The respondents placed reliance on Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab 1996(2) SCC 648, wherein the SC upheld the validity of Section 309 and 306 and held that, right to life being a positive aspect does not include right to die.  They further contended as follows:

  • Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug has the right to live in her present state.
  • Withdrawing/withholding of hydration/food/medical support to a patient is unknown to Indian law and is contrary to law.
  • In any event, these acts/omissions cannot be permitted at the instance of Ms. Pinky Virani who desires to be the next friend of Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug without any locus standi.

However, the petitioners in the instant case placed reliance on Vikram Deo Singh Tomar v. State of Bihar 1988 (Supp) SCC 734 wherein the Court held that, “every person is entitled to a quality of life consistent with his human personality. The right to live with human dignity is the fundamental right of every Indian citizen”. Also, in the case of P. Rathinam v. Union of India (1994) 3 SCC 394, the Court concluded that every positive aspect of a right will also include a negative aspect just the same way in which right to freedom of speech and expression includes right to silence.

The petitioner further contended that, right to live includes right not to live a forced life. Every person should be guaranteed the right to die with dignity and to refuse prolonged medical treatments which artificially holds the life of the person. Further there are two types of euthanasia which are:

  • Active euthanasia: Injecting lethal drugs to kill a terminally ill person.
  • Passive euthanasia: withdrawing the life supports given to the patient and leaving them to die in a natural way.

Passive euthanasia is recognised in countries like Netherlands and Belgium. However, the Dutch legislations do not recognise euthanasia for minors.

Having heard both the parties to the case the Court in its judgment held that, Section 309 and 306 are constitutionally valid.  However, it also held that passive euthanasia may be permitted under certain circumstances and laid down certain guidelines for its execution until a domestic law governing euthanasia is passed by the Parliament.

  • The patient must be in Permanent Vegetative State (PVS)
  • The decision for withdrawal must be taken by close relatives, in case of absence of any such person any other person or body of persons may act as a next friend.
  • In order to avoid misuse, the Court by invoking the doctrine of Parens Patriae will be the sole decision making authority in case of an incompetent person and hence a decision of withdrawal of life support taken by the relatives or next friend should be approved by the HC.
  • When such an application is filed the Chief Justice of the High Court should forthwith constitute a Bench of at least two Judges who should decide to grant approval or not. Before doing so the Bench should seek the opinion of a committee of three reputed doctors to be nominated by the Bench.
  • Based on the reports submitted by the committee of doctors a final conclusion may be taken by the HC.

However, the Court refused to grant euthanasia to Aruna Ramachandra Shaunbaugh stating that:

  • She was not under PVS.
  • She was able to breath without any support
  • She responds via gestures to her surrounding
  • Her brain was functioning without any support.

Later Aruna died of Pneumonia on 18th May 2015.

CONCLUSION: It is a judicially accepted fact that, the term life under Article 21 does not mean mere animal existence but includes all those means which are essential for a dignified life of an individual. Hence, right to dignified life would be meaning less without a right to dignified death. A peaceful and dignified death would be much better than to live artificially on life prolonging machines.

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