[EDITORIALS]Death with dignityThe U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Justice Department cannot punish doctors who assist in suicide, indirectly supporting the practice. The court upheld an Oregon law that permits physicians to prescribe suicide drugs to terminally ill patients who have been told by three doctors that they have less than six months to live. Since the law was passed in 1997, there have been 208 assisted suicides in the state.
In recent years, noteworthy developments continued in the international community regarding euthanasia. In 2000, the Netherlands legalized euthanasia. In 2004, the British family court lifted travel bans for patients to visit Dignitas, a Swiss organization that helps terminally ill individuals from around the world hasten their deaths.
More and more nations are granting terminally ill patients the right to die with dignity. Last April, France adopted a law that allows terminally ill patients the right to stop their life extension treatments. Similar systems are available in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Japanese legislators are seeking to draft a similar bill and plan to introduce it this spring.
The assisted suicides of Oregon in the United States and in the Netherlands assume active actions of injecting suicide drugs to patients to hasten death. The laws in France, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, however, are different in nature. They are more passive ― the laws say that life extension measures for terminally ill patients can be stopped. Instead of extending a life without meaning, the laws accommodate patients’ wishes to die humanely.
A similar debate once took place in Korea. In 2001 and 2002, the Korean Medical Association announced ethics guidelines that would allow doctors to stop treatment for terminally ill patients, but those measures were canceled after fierce public criticism.
Meaningless treatments to extend lives continues at hospitals. Terminal cancer patients are dying in pain, hooked to machines in intensive care units. In intensive care units, there is no opportunity to prepare for death. Traditionally, Koreans ended their lives at homes with families present. Children are sending their parents to intensive care units because they do not want to be criticized for stopping treatment.
In 2003, more people died at hospitals than homes for the first time. Because treatment just before death is expensive, 58 percent of medical bills were accumulated in the last three months of life. Also, some of those who could be saved by intensive care cannot be accommodated.
Doctors are also treating patients at hospitals to dodge punishment. In June 2004, a doctor of Boramae Hospital in Seoul, who allowed his patient to be discharged at the request of the patient’s family, was convicted of assisting a murder. As a defensive measure, doctors are holding onto their patients until the last moment. Patients, families and doctors are victims.
It is too early to discuss the possibility of adopting assisted suicide in Korea, but it is time to discuss how to allow terminally ill patients to die with dignity. People should not be forced to extend their lives artificially.
It is time to seek a social consensus on death with dignity. Punishing doctors who end treatments for terminal patients should end. A patient’s will should be considered when he or she is conscious. The family’s will should be considered when a patient is unconscious. To prevent abuse of assisted suicides, we should limit the practice to terminal cancer or AIDS patients. There should be strict procedures in making medical judgments that a patient is terminally ill. It is time for Korean society to discuss death with dignity seriously.