Debating death with dignity

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Debating death with dignity

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On May 18, Seoul National University Hospital announced it would accept patients’ right to die with dignity. The medical field sees that it has become commonplace for patients who have nearly no chance to be cured to refuse treatment when its only purpose is to prolong life and nothing else. In February, the late Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan refused meaningless treatment to only prolong his life, choosing to die with dignity. The medical community regards it as a good example of death with dignity.

However, resistance and protest are as vigorous. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea’s Council for Bioethics released a statement warning that forces that “distorted” the passing of Cardinal Kim as a death with dignity have tried to misuse the case for their own interest.

Euthanasia has long been controversial and the term has been replaced with “death with dignity,” but still the controversy never dies out.

Strictly speaking, the two are not the same.

Euthanasia is defined as leading a patient to a painless death when there is no cure for him and when it is regarded as meaningless to prolong his life. In this category, administering lethal medicine to a patient is called “active euthanasia,” while stopping treatment and waiting for a patient’s death is “passive euthanasia.”

Many experts agree that when the term death with dignity is used in Korea, as when the SNU Hospital made its announcement, it means passive euthanasia.

However, in other countries the same term is used with a much broader meaning.

In 1997, Oregon State University passed a euthanasia act that allows administering lethal medicine to a patient when diagnosis shows he will die within six months, in order to mitigate his pain. As many as 4,000 or so patients have “benefited” from the law so far.

Recently, there has been discussion on whether a person should have the right to die with dignity when he does not have an incurable disease.

For instance, when a person’s entire body is paralyzed and he refuses to continue living a “meaningless life,” should he be given the right to choose to die with dignity?

In “Million Dollar Baby,” the movie that received the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2004, a female boxer that Clint Eastwood’s character cherishes like his own daughter suffers an accident in the ring. As she becomes paralyzed and loses hope for life, he assists her suicide by injecting her with lethal medicine.

After the movie premiered, human rights organizations for disabled people protested furiously, condemning the movie as propaganda to encourage disabled people to die.

Compared to this, the controversy over the issue in Korea is only in its infancy. More discussions should take place to come to a wise conclusion.




The writer is a team manager at JES Entertainment.

By Song Won-sup [five@joongang.co.kr]

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