Page last updated at 08:27 GMT, Thursday, 17 December 2009

India court admits plea to end life of rape victim

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Delhi

Aruna Shanbaug
Ms Shanbaug worked as a nurse in the hospital where she was attacked

India's Supreme Court has admitted a plea to end the life of a woman who has been in a vegetative state since 1973.

Aruna Shanbaug, a nurse in Mumbai (Bombay), has been paralysed and considered "brain-dead" since she was attacked by a rapist in November 1973.

The plea has been made by a journalist who has written a book on Ms Shanbaug.

The court will examine if the plea is "akin to euthanasia". It is being seen as a landmark case in India where euthanasia or mercy killing is illegal.

The Supreme Court has sought a report on Ms Shanbaug's medical condition from the hospital in Mumbai and the government of Maharashtra.

'Virtually dead'

In her petition, journalist Pinki Virani says Ms Shanbaug has been in a "persistent vegetative state" for 36 years and is "virtually a dead person".

Ms Shanbaug is force fed by nurses looking after her twice a day at the KEM hospital in Mumbai.

Ms Virani wants the court to issue instructions to "forthwith ensure that no food is fed" to Ms Shanbaug.

"This continued vegetative existence devoid of any human dignity is not life at all and putting mashed food in her mouth only amounts to violation of human dignity," the petition says.

"The continued vegetative existence of Aruna is a violation of her right to live with dignity. In other words, she has a right to not be in this kind of sub-human condition."

Ms Virani describes how Ms Shanbaug's condition has deteriorated over the years.

"She is not able to talk, hear or see anything... she is like a vegetable, totally devoid of any element of human life."

Ms Shanbaug's parents died many years ago and "none of her sisters or brothers or any other relative has ever bothered to visit her, enquire about her or to take care of her" in the past 36 years, the petition says.

Pinki Virani
There is not the slightest possibility of any improvement in Aruna's condition
Pinki Virani, petitioner

Ms Shaunbag was raped by a hospital sweeper at the KEM hospital on 27 November 1973. The sweeper tried to strangle her.

The petition says that she suffered "brain stem contusion injuries with associated cervical cord injury and due to this she was reduced to almost a vegetable".

Her attacker was sentenced to seven years in prison for attempting to murder and rob Ms Shanbaug.

In her book, Ms Virani describes Ms Shanbag's condition in 1997 when she turned 49.

"She was in a totally pathetic state. Her bones were brittle. Her skin was like 'papier mache', stretched over her skeleton."

"Her teeth had decayed causing her immense pain. Food was completely mashed and given in semi-solid form. She choked on liquids."

Euthanasia debate

This is not the first time that a mercy killing demand has gone to the courts.

In 2004, a terminally-ill Indian chess champion became a focus of a euthanasia debate before he died in a hospital.

Venkatesh, 25, was suffering from a genetic neurological disorder and was on life-support for more than seven months.

Both the hospital authorities and the Andhra Pradesh high court refused his request to turn off his life support system, saying that would amount to an illegal mercy killing.

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