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Indian court rules on life support case

8th March 2011

Terminally ill Indian patients may soon be the subject of courtroom battles in India, where the practice of euthanasia is under debate.


T R Andhyarujina, a lawyer and legal adviser to the Indian supreme court, said that a recent ruling was the first time a top Indian court had made a euthanasia ruling.

He said that the court had not given permission for doctors to inject anything lethal into the patient, though it accepted the withdrawal of a life support system.

For nearly four decades, the patient, Aruna Shanbaug, has been kept on life support in a Mumbai hospital.

Since she was raped and strangled 37 years ago, Shanbaug has not shown any signs of emerging from her vegetative state.

Sunil Pandya, a neurosurgeon at KEM Hospital in Parel, described Shanbaug as being in what could be termed 'persistent vegetative state'.

Shanbaug can open her eyes from time to time, and display signs of approving or disapproving of particular foods, but doctors are not able to register any mental activity, communication, or motor capability allowing her to sit or stand.

The supreme court of India ruled that passive euthanasia was a legal approach for the family of a vegetative person to take, if the family did not wish to try treating a chronic illness.

A two-judge bench in the Indian supreme court said that withdrawing life support could be allowed under exceptional circumstances if the request was made by family and supervised by doctors.

Accordingly, the court ruled that passive euthanasia should be officially permitted in India in certain situations, until parliament passed a corresponding law.

The ruling made provision for a panel of three doctors to supervise every case of passive euthanasia, to prevent unscrupulous family members from attempting to kill off wealthy relatives.

The Supreme Court said that the commercialisation of Indian society had crossed all limits, and that it was the job of legislators to guard against abuse.

Since Shanbaug entered her vegitative state, both of her parents have died.

Indian law also contains a ruling on self-starvation, in which elderly believers from India's minority Jain religion give up food and water until death.

Shanbaug's attacker served a seven-year jail sentence, and today remains free.

Last month, Belgian neuroscientists were able to arrange a channel of communication between a comatose patient and a team of researchers.

The 29-year-old man understood doctors' instructions, and was able to use his imaginary activity to answer yes or no questions.

Doctors instructed the man to stimulate different parts of his brain while his brain underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The man stimulated one part of his brain by imagining playing tennis, and another by imagining a network of roads.

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