Whose life is it anyway? Euthanasia and the Locus Standi debate

March 7, 2011 § 8 Comments

There’s enough said about euthanasia and the right to life – including the right to live with dignity. The Supreme Court has, today, rejected the plea of Journalist Pinky Virani that Aruna Shanbaug, a nurse who has been bedridden and in a debatable state of consciousness for almost 30 years after a brutal sexual assault, should be “allowed to die with dignity” instead of having to be “force fed” by the staff of the KEM Hospital who have been caring for her since she was first discovered in her traumatic state.

For me, the issue gets sorted out at a very preliminary stage and- what is the locus standi of the Petitioner, in this case a journalist, to ask for this rather drastic intervention of law?

First things first. Who is Pinky Virani?

Pinky Virani is a journalist of repute, having written several books and articles highlighting the plight of sexually abused children. She also wrote a book, “Aruna’s Story”, entailing the life of Aruna Shanbaug both before and after the assault which led her to being in this vegetative state. It is a powerful book and it does leave a reader in shock, and makes a case out for euthanasia, whether you accept it or not is a different story.

Writing a book about this woman is one thing. I’m afraid petitioning the Apex Court for her feeding tube to be removed is a bit much.

Locus Standi, or standing before the Court, is the principle that a Petitioner must demonstrate some interest in a case to justify their seeking judicial intervention. It is, in a way, the reply to the crudely put “tere baap ka kya jaata hai?”. Every time a Petitioner comes before a Court seeking some relief, he has to demonstrate his locus standi.

There are two exceptions to this rule: one, in Criminal Cases, because the traditional position is that Crimes are against the State, and therefore any person has the right to set the Criminal Justice machinery in motion. You can call the cops to lodge an FIR and they can never ask you what right you have to interfere. Of course there are exceptions to this rule in certain cases.

The second, is when there are matters of Public Interest, commonly known as PILs. In a PIL, the less interest you have in a case, the better – PILs are often thrown out when it is found that the Petitioner has some vested interest in the outcome of the case. You can’t have any further interest than the greater public interest you represent.

Aruna’s case is neither a Criminal Complaint, nor is it a PIL. The first assertion is fairly obvious, the second is not as much. Think about it. Pinky Virani only asked for Aruna’s feeding tube to be removed. She hasn’t asked for a legislation or policy statement on Euthanasia. There is no public interest involved here. Once you’re asking for something like Aruna’s Case to be decided in the facts and circumstances of her case and her case alone, this won’t automatically be precedent for lakhs of feeding tubes around the country to be removed all at once. Laying down a “law on euthanasia” would be a bit much even for the Supreme Court.

That being said, does Pinky Virani have any locus standi in this case? I’m afraid she doesn’t. Virani’s contention was that she was filing the Petition as the “next friend” of the patient. Here’s a definition of “next friend”:

“Someone who appears in court in place of another who is not competent to do so, usually because they are a minor or are considered incompetent. Often the role is filled by a parent or other relative; it can be any legally-competent person whose interests do not run counter to those of the person on whose behalf they are acting . The “next friend” is not a party to the proceeding, nor are they a formally-appointed guardian. Instead, they are considered an agent of the court whose role is to protect the rights of the incompetent person.”

Can it be conclusively said that Pinky Virani has no vested interest in the filing of this PIL? I’m going to court controversy here and say no. Let’s get real – she’s written a book on Aruna Shanbaug which is nothing short of a heart wrenching biography of the woman. If Aruna Shanbaug is allowed to die (let’s not use the word “killed”) I’m pretty sure that Aruna’s Story will go in for a reprint with a new epilogue.  I think it’s great that Aruna Shanbaug has so many people who surround her, even though her family has long before faded in the background, caring for her interests, including Virani. But considering a. she is not on life support b. she is being cared for by a competent staff of trained nurses in a Hospital c. she is clearly showing signs of life and response to stimuli, “tere baap ka kya jaata hai?”

Though the Judgement is not uploaded yet, apparently the Supreme Court also found the locus standi issue wanting. In my mind, the case should have been thrown out at the threshold itself instead of wasting precious judicial time in the merits of the arguments.

Just a disclaimer: For the record, I am all for the legalization of euthanasia as long as certain safeguards exist.


Updated: Here is the link to the Judgement. http://bit.ly/g1pmgI Courtesy http://judis.nic.in


§ 8 Responses to Whose life is it anyway? Euthanasia and the Locus Standi debate

  • _slipslap says:

    I read “Pinky Virani”s and yours views.

    And mine are :

    1. This matter must be put in front of parliament (aka Law Ministry).
    2. A national vote/discussion is also required.
    3. 10 people can’t have all the valid thoughts what 10 billion can have.
    4. We have some good institutions like medical colleges, law schools and human right organizations etc. Lets bring this machinery in.

    If I see myself in, I don’t want to live like a vegetable in bed. I will be highly obliged to my “Next Friend”, would you be mine.

  • Vidyut says:

    I am a bit awestruck at your utterly mathematical reaction to this issue. And a bit aghast. At the end of the day, the laws exist for the well being of people. Their emotions matter. If Aruna is responsive, I would think hers is the most important opinion. If she isn’t, and there isn’t hope, and she doesn’t sound brain dead, it also must be considered what this imprisonment is doing to her sanity and to what end.

    I cannot say what a locus standi is, but I can say if I am bedridden and incapable of seeking my objectives with no hope for it either, I would prefer a painless death than a long drawn out death with me in the front seat. I am a young mother. God forbid if my child went through something like that, I’d be heartbroken, but I would hope a law wouldn’t prevent me from seeking relief for him.

    I have seen an aunt bedridden from a stroke “live” for fourteen years post the event. She was capable of interaction and raw sounds. After the first couple of months, all she would say when asked if she was doing okay was look at the ceiling with tearfilled eyes. She has been dead for over a decade, but I can’t forget the her helplessness and ours. That was no life.

    And no, no matter how much care is taken, it is a life of indignity, of bedsores, of endless moments of frustration.

    I have no clue how this pans out legally, but I see it as human rights abuse to refuse death to someone incapable of committing suicide, who wants to die.

    For someone who has seen hopeless helplessness up close, your post sounds very callous. And it sounds worse that rather than caring about the patient, you find the petitioner possibly printing an epilogue more relevant toward a decision. The epilogue will get written if she wishes it even if the decision is overthrown, no? Or if Aruna dies naturally? Is this about Aruna or who?

    • Amicus Curious says:

      Thanks for your comment – I am talking about the legality or otherwise of the Judgement and the Petition, and not on the pros and cons of euthanasia. If you read my piece carefully you’d see that I am a supporter of Euthanasia, which I have made very clear.

      Yeah, if you have some contributions to make on the Law, please contact the Law Ministry which has been given the task of formulating a law on Euthanasia which does not exist as of today. They will probably call for public opinion soon.

      I’ve put up the Judgement, I hope you can take the time to read it and be safe in the knowledge that if something happens to your loved ones you can now take recourse. In the meanwhile, it would be useful to make a living will in which you can state your intention to be taken off life support in case of any such eventuality. That will make things easier for your loved ones.

  • Raanjit says:

    I am a doctor and I shall try to put my views from purely a medical perspective.

    Death itself is an issue which has cleaved the medical fraternity. What is death? When the heart stops beating? Brain death? Irreversible cessation of electrical activity in the whole brain is now the accepted norm. This gets complicated in the Intensive critical care unit where bed side ventilators are available.

    One could broadly say that if a third party performs the last act that intentionally causes a patient’s death, it is euthanasia. In the Indian context, this argument is not nuanced as yet. Critical care remains expensive and beyond the reach of most Indians. Hospitals too are generally unwilling to have a patient avail of a critical care bed for a prolonged duration. In developed countries, this is a contentious matter. The suffering of carers, specifically family members is intense. The patient too faces improbable odds of survival. Closure is something that typically brings relief to everyone involved.

    We need guidelines and stringent criteria to define the conditions where Euthanasia would be permitted. This can only be done at a national level to preempt law suits and transgressions. This should be preceded by a debate incorporating doctors, psychologists, social scientists and the community at large.

    There is no clear yes and no to this debate. There are several philosophical arguments both against as well as favouring Euthanasia. I for one, believe that Euthanasia should be debated dispassionately and the way ahead will emerge. Medical science evolves at a much faster pace and this debate is something that needs to be addressed now rather than being pushed on the back burner.

    • Amicus Curious says:

      Ranjit – I agree wholeheartedly. There needs to be an option at least, whether or not people exercise the same is their own prerogative. I hope you are part of any such discussion that takes place while formulating the Law!

  • shweta j says:

    i disagree with what you have said, my dear. Even if Pinky Virani has interest in this case, i am sure she has best interests at her heart. Have you seen Aruna Shaunbaug’s videos. Its true that she is not being kept on ventilator, but imagine being force fed everyday, and she is blind, deaf & dumb…from last 36 years. Sadly enough, we can not pass judgement on this case except our opinions & ‘views’, coz needless to say this is a ‘happening’ topic to discuss. Don’t you think, she deserves to die with dignity ?

    • Amicus Curious says:

      My point is not whether or not she deserves to die (this is something which should be decided upon by a panel of doctors, and I support their findings in the Judgement even though I am in favour of euthanasia. You can’t look at a few photos and decide). My point is only the maintainability of the Petition on strictly legal procedure, going by the precedent in relation to PILs and the concept of the “next friend” in law. Being a professional, I am not going to write on sentiments. I’ll leave that to you.

  • Akshaya says:

    I don’t have sufficient knowledge about either the law or Aruna’s personal motivations to challenge the Supreme Court’s ruling. What I will say is that when this case first came to light, rule-book based definitions stated that since her hymen wasn’t broken, rape hadn’t been committed. That, in itself, says something about needing to break free from technical definitions, and go beyond them, because sometimes extraordinary circumstances do materialize.

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