India's Supreme Court ruled Monday that in rare cases a terminally ill patient can be removed from life support, a major shift in a country where such acts have long been illegal. It rejected, however, a plea to end the life of a woman who was brain damaged more than 30 years ago.
Aruna Shanbaug, 60, a former nurse, suffered massive brain injuries during a brutal sexual assault in 1973, leaving her unable to talk, move or eat on her own.
Since then, she has been looked after by the medical staff at the Mumbai hospital where she worked and where she was raped.
But whether she is in a vegetative state or even technically on life support is bitterly debated.
Her caregivers insist she has some level of understanding despite her injuries and is even able to indicate what food and music she enjoys through facial expressions. She has mostly been fed with a spoon since the attack, they say, though recently feeding tubes have been used.
But a journalist who has written extensively about the case insists she is in a vegetative state and should be allowed to "die with dignity" by stopping all feeding. Journalist Pinki Virani filed the request in 1999.
The court agreed with Shanbaug's doctors and nurses and said her care should continue.
But in a break with the past, the court said that in rare cases a terminally ill patient could be removed from life support _ what the Indian legal system calls "passive euthanasia" _ if done under court supervision.
That was a first for the Indian courts, which have repeatedly denied any legal right to removing life support over the years.
The ruling said, though, that "active euthanasia," where someone is killed with a lethal injection, remains illegal in all cases.