NEW DELHI — The pro-life movement is virtually unheard of in India, where Christians number a mere 2.3% among its 1.2 billion people and 80% of the population is Hindu.

Yet when the plea for mercy killing for a woman in a comatose condition came before the Supreme Court of India, there was hardly any support for the petitioner, who demanded the woman be given the “right to die with dignity.”

Though the March 7 judgment drew critical headlines like “No Mercy to Aruna,” it was hailed on many different strata of India society. From the attorney general of India — the highest law officer in the government — to the staff of the King Edward Memorial (KEM) Hospital in Mumbai, where 63-year old Aruna Shanbaug has been leading a “persistent vegetative life,” all opposed the mercy-killing plea.

“Right to life guaranteed by Article 21 of the constitution does not include the right to die,” declared the court, categorically opposing active euthanasia.

“This is an excellent judgment. The court has upheld the cultural ethos in this country,” Rajeev Aggarwal, a prominent cancer specialist at the Gangaram Hospital in New Delhi, said March 17.

Aggarwal, a Hindu, pointed out that “very few wanted the court to give sanction to speed up her death.” Further, he noted that this was “evident” in the “loving care” the staff of the government hospital in Mumbai had shown to Shanbaug.

The court also congratulated the hospital and its staff for their dedication in caring for Shanbaug, a nurse, who has grown very frail over the years.

“The whole country must learn the meaning of dedication and sacrifice from the KEM Hospital staff. In her 37 years (of comatose existence), Aruna has not developed a single bed sore,” commented the court.

While rejecting the plea of social activist Pinki Virani, who had authored a book on the tragedy that befell Shanbaug, the court noted that Virani “cannot claim to have an extent of attachment and bonding with Aruna, which the KEM Hospital staff … claim to have.”

Shanbaug was 27 in November 1973 when a ward boy tried to rape her in the hospital where she worked. His attempt to strangle her with an iron chain interrupted the flow of oxygen to her brain, inducing the coma.

“Look at the response of the government, KEM doctors and the staff in the case. The (court) judgment only endorses the stand these groups had taken,” said Dr. G. D. Ravindran, senior professor at St. John’s Medical College and Hospital in Bangalore, which is run by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.

“Pro-life thinking is very much there in this country, too,” said Ravindran, a Christian convert from Hinduism.

Government Reaction

While the opposition of the KEM Hospital to the mercy-killing plea was a foregone conclusion, what made national headlines during the hearing was the stance of the federal government. It contradicted the earlier liberal stance of the autonomous Law Commission of India, which had supported the plea to uphold terminally ill patients’ right to choose death to end their suffering.

G.E. Vahanvati, the attorney general of India, told the Supreme Court on March 3 that Western parameters of euthanasia cannot be applied to Indian conditions and culture.

“We do not lead our terminally ill parents or kids to death. Who decides if one should live or die? Who knows? Tomorrow there might be a cure to a medical state perceived as incurable today,” argued the chief legal officer of the federal government, opposing the mercy-killing plea. “And won’t leading the terminally ill impede pro-life medical research?”

Even a three-member medical panel appointed by the Supreme Court to study Shanbaug’s condition had opposed the euthanasia plea and played in court a recording of her body movements.

Treated Like a Daughter

When the verdict came out, the Church had reasons to rejoice. “The Church is happy and relieved that the court has rejected this plea,” said Cardinal Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Mumbai and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.

However, the real celebration over the historic judgment was at the sprawling premises of KEM Hospital. Jubilant staff members gathered in the hospital courtyard to celebrate their victory and distribute sweets to one another in front of TV cameras.

This celebration extended to the home of Tidi Makwana, who had retired six months ago from KEM at the age of 58.

“I am happy that the court has spared our Aruna’s life. She is a daughter to me. I am ready to go and serve her freely, even now,” said Makwana who had fed, clothed, combed the hair and cut the nails of Shanbaug for 25 years.

“The judges of the Supreme Court and staff of King Edward Memorial (KEM) Hospital, Mumbai, deserve special kudos for saving the life of Aruna Shanbaug,” wrote Bishop Thomas Dabre of Poona in a signed article in the English-language newspaper Daily News Analysis March 15.

“In the present-day bizarre world of ours,” he pointed out, “the culture of death is growing in the midst of scientific and medical advances (that are) intended to promote the quality and duration of human life.”

Register correspondent Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.