A legacy of dignity

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A legacy of dignity

Kim Ok-gyeong, the woman who made a social issue of “death with dignity,” died 201 days after her artificial respirator was removed. A family representative said that the family had no regrets about their decision to turn the respirator off because Kim was comfortable and they were able to take care of her and be near her. They also reiterated their belief that patients should not be forced to undergo treatments they do not want.

In February 2008, the family filed a lawsuit to have her artificial respirator removed after Kim fell into a coma following a medical procedure. Their assessment of her wishes was based on their knowledge of her as a person who never wanted to burden others, and the fact that she was against similar treatment for her husband, who had suffered from a heart attack. In May 2009, the Supreme Court upheld the decision to detach Kim’s respirator, as the family had wished. The ruling reflected the current social climate, which places importance on people’s right to die with dignity.

This is a breakthrough for the many patients and families who have long demanded the right to determine when medical treatment should be stopped. It stimulated related discussions, and guidelines have been presented in the medical field. However, the advancements have ended there. The slow progress of the bill has rendered such guidelines ineffective, creating confusion among health care personnel. The bill has been delayed because conflict remains about when and how treatment should be discontinued.

The Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs created a task force comprised of people from the fields of medicine and religion at the end of last year, when it received criticism for neglecting the issue. But the group has yet to reach a consensus on several important questions. Should a patient have to state his or her wishes in a living will or is a verbal expression of his or her wishes enough? Can a family member make decisions on behalf of a dying patient? Should these rules exclude patients who are in a coma or can these people be included after a certain period of time has elapsed?

Needless to say, the issue should be handled with great care since it involves people and their families facing a critical time in their lives. However, we should not let the opportunity to resolve this important issue escape because we are too busy debating it.

The government must lead the way to a fair and rational solution, taking note of actions taken by countries that have resolved the problem for themselves. It must also expand hospice, palliative and other forms of care that will enable a patient to live comfortably and die with dignity. This is the legacy Kim has left with us.
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