Aruna Shanbaug: Brain-damaged India nurse dies 42 years after rape

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An Indian nurse who spent 42 years in a persistent vegetative state after being raped and strangled has died. Aruna Shanbaug was left with severe brain damage and paralysed after the 1973 attack by a ward attendant in the Mumbai hospital where she worked.

She was fed through the nose to keep her alive but developed pneumonia six days ago, the hospital said. Her case sparked a debate about India’s euthanasia laws. The Supreme Court had rejected a plea to allow her to die.

“Ms Shanbaug died at 08:30am on Monday. She was admitted to the intensive care unit and put on ventilator support,” a spokesman at Mumbai’s KEM hospital said.

Ms Shanbaug was 25 years old when she was sodomised by a KEM hospital cleaner who strangled her with metal chains and left her to die on 27 November 1973.

She survived, but spent the rest of her life in hospital, force fed twice a day. “My broken, battered baby bird finally flew away. And she gave India a passive euthanasia law before doing so,” journalist and author Pinki Virani, who wrote Aruna’s Story, a book on the nurse’s plight said

There is an outpouring of sympathy for Aruna Shanbaug on Twitter. Many feel that she “should have been allowed to go much earlier”. Most Twitter users also agree that the absence of the “right to die” in India’s legal system compounded her misery.

One Twitter user says Shanbaug’s case “represents everything that is wrong with India’s society”.

Others highlight that she was brutally raped and then had to live in a vegetative state for 42 years because several campaigns in support of euthanasia “just fell on deaf years”.

Some say that her ordeal “will always shame India”, while others are hopeful that her story will once again reignite the debate on euthanasia.

 

Ms Virani filed the case which was rejected by the Supreme Court in 2011. She had argued that Ms Shanbaug was “virtually a dead person” and should be allowed to die.

Ms Shanbaug’s parents died many years ago and other relatives had not maintained contact with her, Ms Virani said.

She wanted the court to issue instructions to the hospital to stop feeding Ms Shanbaug.

But hospital authorities told the court that Ms Shanbaug “accepts food… and responds by facial expressions” and responds to “commands intermittently by making sounds”.

Doctors say patients in a vegetative state are awake, not in a coma, but have no awareness because of severe brain damage.

Lawyer Shekhar Nafade, who represented Ms Virani in the Supreme Court said that he felt “relieved for Aruna”.

Ms Shanbaug’s attacker, Sohanlal Bharta Walmiki, was not even charged for raping her since sodomy was not considered rape under Indian laws at the time.

He was freed after serving a seven-year-sentence for robbery and attempted murder.

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