[Viewpoint] Lacking foresight on euthanasia issue

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[Viewpoint] Lacking foresight on euthanasia issue

If someone said that, on average, 165 people per day chose euthanasia in hospitals throughout the country, you would wonder what he or she was talking about.

However, that many people actually reject medical treatments such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation and quietly choose death. A total of 60,300 people in a year, which is around 90 percent of terminal-stage cancer patients, make this choice. They choose euthanasia at the advice of doctors, or after consultations with their family members.

However, there is no legal safety net for making such decisions. If a family member raises an objection, the hospital is swept into turmoil, because someone could be investigated for murder, or aiding and abetting murder. As there are no related laws and specific guidelines for hospital authorities to follow, choosing euthanasia is like walking on thin ice.

Senior citizen Kim’s family, who recently chose euthanasia at Yonsei University Severance Hospital, made the choice following the ruling of the Supreme Court. It was expected, therefore, to be a solemn affair.

However, when people saw how she remained alive even after the removal of the artificial respirator, doubts about euthanasia started to rise. This is only natural, considering the reality that there is no broad social understanding of euthanasia.

Even the definition of the word euthanasia is confusing. The word euthanasia does not appear in the Supreme Court’s first and second rulings on the Kim case. Instead, terms like “stopping treatment for prolongation of life” or “insignificant extension of life” are used. The press preferred to use the term euthanasia instead.

The word euthanasia was not found in a Korean dictionary until the 1990s. Korea adopted the term that Japan used when it started to allow euthanasia in mid-1970s. Japan translated the “Natural Death Act” and “Death with Dignity Act” of the United States, which recognize both active and passive euthanasia, into Japanese.

Korean people are confused because we are looking at instances of death referred to as euthanasia, but the term has different meanings in different places.

Korea has used the term euthanasia only for cases where insignificant life extension treatments for terminal-stage cancer patients are stopped. This is to prevent the term from being misunderstood, as in the United States, where it is used to include passive euthanasia of patients in a coma.

However, the case of Kim the senior citizen, who has survived even after the removal of her artificial respirator, has created a controversy.

In the United States, doctors also stop the supply of nutrients and water to patients who choose euthanasia. In the case of senior citizen Kim, however, they are still supplying nutrients and water. They chose Korean-style euthanasia.

There are cases in the United States where patients in such a situation survived for months or years. But a misunderstanding about euthanasia grew here because we did not prepare for or foresee this possibility.

In retrospect, the medical community brought the controversy on itself by leaving the situation alone. There was a lack of effort by the Korea Medical Association and other organizations to explain to people the true nature of the system that allows euthanasia. This was probably because of the experience of failure seven years ago, when after making several attempts, they were indiscriminately attacked by the press for “trying to introduce passive euthanasia.”

The laziness of the Korean Medical Association, which has failed to show the necessary leadership to make euthanasia a social issue, made the problem grow larger. The National Assembly seems to have no interest in enacting a law on euthanasia.

If this is the case, a guideline for euthanasia that can be applied to the medical field should, at least, be established as soon as possible. This is the only way to prevent further confusion caused by cases like Kim’s.

The Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs has become a laughingstock for acting as if it is not in the center of the debate. Its position is that there is nothing to gain from getting involved in the problem of “death.”

If the ministry ignores the problem, even though around 60,000 cancer patients in the terminal stage actually choose euthanasia each year, it would not be taking the attitude of a government branch that works for public welfare.

If it considers the pain and hardship of ordinary people, it should, at least, promptly provide guidelines related to euthanasia. If the National Assembly cannot take action on it, shouldn’t the government step forward instead?

*The writer is a columnist. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Choi Chul-joo
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