NEW DELHI // India's Supreme Court ruled yesterday that life support can be legally removed for some terminally ill patients in a decision that will allow "passive euthanasia" for the first time.
The judgement came during a hearing into the case of the former nurse Aruna Shanbaug, who has been in a vegetative state in a Mumbai hospital since being raped and strangled with a chain while at work 37 years ago.
A plea by the journalist and friend Pinki Virani to stop her being force-fed was rejected by India's top court on the grounds that Ms Virani was unable to make the demand on Ms Shanbaug's behalf.
But doctors and nurses could petition to withdraw life support, provided the request was supervised by the courts, a two-judge bench in the Supreme Court ruled in a highly complex judgement.
"Active euthanasia is illegal," the court ruled, referring to the process of doctors ending a patient's life with lethal medication. "Passive euthanasia is permissible, but it should be done under the supervision of the High Court."
Ms Virani filed the case in the Supreme Court in 1999 asking for Ms Shanbaug to be allowed to die with dignity. Both of Ms Shanbaug's parents have died and other family members have not maintained contact with her, according to the petition.
"Death in certain conditions can be allowed, only if life support, nutrition or water is removed," Shubhangi Tulli, Ms Virani's lawyer, told to reporters outside the court after the ruling.
"It is for doctors to decide whether passive euthanasia can be allowed."
Ms Shanbaug is bedridden, blind and in a vegetative state, according to doctors who examined her as part of the Supreme Court case.
Friends says she is now mostly still. Previous bouts of screaming and shouting, which occurred despite her being in a vegetative state, have subsided with age.
Her attacker, a ward boy at the hospital, was freed after a seven-year jail sentence.
The lawyer TR Andhyarujina, who was an adviser to the Supreme Court in the case, said it was the first time there had been a ruling on euthanasia by the top court.
"The court has accepted the withdrawal of a life support system, but has not given the permission to inject any lethal substance," he explained.