[Viewpoint]Let terminally ill choose their deathNo one can avoid death. It doesn’t matter how advanced medicine gets, this proposition does not change. Although most patients died in their homes in the past, there has been a greater tendency for patients to die in hospitals. Most terminal patients, in particular, die after a long hospitalization.
The aspects of death have changed due to the use of life-prolonging treatments, including artificial respirators, cardiac pacemakers and artificial nutrients. The development of life-prolonging treatments has considerably extended the life-span of many terminal patients. In other words, the death process has become adjustable by the hands of doctors.
Life-prolonging treatment can be beneficial, because everyone wants to live as long as possible. But there have been many cases in which meaningless life-prolonging treatments were taken even though there was no possibility the patient could be healed.
In 1997, there was the “Boramae Hospital incident,” in which two doctors were convicted of abetting murder after they allowed a patient to be discharged from the Seoul hospital and withdrew his respiratory assistance device at his wife’s request, because she said she could not afford the treatment anymore.
Since then, doctors have begun to hesitate stopping life-prolonging treatment for terminal patients.
Due to this, patients experience pain they might otherwise be able to avoid and their families have to bear great mental and economic burdens.
For this reason, there have been a growing number of voices asking whether life-prolonging treatments are simply to delay death.
Stopping life-prolonging treatment refers to withholding or withdrawal of all kinds of treatment that can prolong the lives of medically irrecoverable, terminally ill patients.
Requesting the right to die with dignity by removing or withdrawing life-prolonging devices is called “death with dignity.”
However, since it is done by medical teams in the medical field, it can be called the stopping of life-prolonging treatment.
Certainly, life cannot be disposed of or given up, because it is absolute.
Thus criminal laws stipulate severe punishment not only for murdering a person but also for killing the person at someone else’s behest.
Most doctors tell terminally patients whether their illness can be treated or how long they can live, but they don’t talk about the process of death or give the patient choices.
Because there have been cases in which the stopping of life-prolonging treatment led to charges of murder or aiding the murder, doctors don’t allow terminal patients to choose “a least bad death.”
Foreign countries legislated “natural death” or “living will” laws a long time ago, establishing a written procedure for terminal patients to specify their own wishes about their medical treatments.
These laws allow the patients, in advance, to ask doctors to withhold or stop mechanical or artificial life-prolonging treatment when they are at a terminal stage or if their death is imminent.
The purpose of the laws is to enable patients to continuously exercise control over their lives by asking doctors to treat them according to their will, even if they lose consciousness or lapse into a coma.
A few days ago, prosecutors decided not to press charges against the doctor who removed an artificial respirator from a terminally ill liver cirrhosis patient who asked the doctor several times to be allowed to leave the world without pain.
This rekindled the controversy over mercy killing.
Now is the time for us to closely re-examine the decision-making process for terminal patients’ life and death.
There are limits to the benefits medical treatment can offer. In some cases, it would be better to stop the treatment without taking all the measures available.
We should create conditions in which patients can deliberate and choose their own “least bad death.”
And then we should make sure that if the choice was true and the decision was their own, society should respect and accept the decision.
*The writer is a professor of law at Hallym University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee In-young