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Legalize the right to die

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May 20,2009
Following the example set by the late Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, who refused to receive pointless life-sustaining treatment, Korean society is increasingly paying attention to “dying well.” People have begun contemplating whether it is right to continue medical treatment for a patient with no possibility of recovery.

Seoul National University Hospital has recently adopted a system of recommending advance directives to terminal cancer patients to allow them to decide whether or not they want life support treatment in the event that they cannot speak for themselves. Such a move is largely supported by society but it is still courageous of Seoul National University Hospital to take the first step.

The medical community here has avoided the issue for a long time because they have been worried about public opinion.

We have made clear our opposition to meaningless life-sustaining treatment that is irrelevant to a patient’s will and painful for the family. We have also stressed that it is necessary to establish a law that provides standards and methods to stop such medical treatment to prevent abuse of the end-of-life decision.

A bill on the right to die was drafted earlier this year, but the religious community fiercely rejected it at a public discussion session in March. The bill has been unable to move forward for deliberation at a standing committee.

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will rule on a petition filed by the family of a comatose patient to have her artificial respirator removed. If the Supreme Court upholds earlier lower courts’ rulings that the respirator should be removed, it is likely that the bill will move forward soon. If the highest court overturns the lower courts’ decision, the plan to legalize the right to die will probably go back to square one.

Doctors have tacitly stopped life-sustaining treatments for patients with no hope of recovery, at the risk of punishment for aiding murder under current law. Although Seoul National University Hospital has initiated a way to bring the practice into the open, it has no legal standing.

In order to prevent further confusion, it is necessary to legalize at least what has been agreed upon within society. The National Cancer Center conducted a survey last year asking people if they want to sign advance directives so they can make a decision on future life-sustaining treatments. According to the poll, 93 percent of the people polled supported the plan.

The government and the National Assembly should no longer turn away from this issue. It is urgent that a legal system is built to accommodate our society’s growing need to recognize the right to die.



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