Allowing a dignified end to life

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Allowing a dignified end to life

As our society rapidly ages, we are taking more interest in end-of-life care and the right to die in dignity. The concept of euthanasia, which refers to the practice of suspending meaningless medical treatment and intentionally ending a life to relieve pain and suffering, is still novel in our society.

But there are many patients with incurable diseases under extreme distress - and whose families suffer along the way - who desire nothing more than to die in peace. And it appears some doctors are listening. A think tank on bioethical policies commissioned by the Ministry of Health and Welfare conducted a survey from last December asking physicians if they would agree to cease medical treatment to ease their terminally ill patients’ pain and shorten their lives should voluntary euthanasia be legalized. More than 1,400 physicians said they would respect their patients’ will.

According to the center’s survey of 279 medical institutions, the number of patients undergoing extraordinary life-extension measures has been gradually decreasing, showing 5.5 per institution as of July. At Seoul National University Hospital, the percentage of patients suffering from late-stage cancer who refused extraordinary treatment increased to 89.5 percent from 85.8 percent in 2007.

The growing sympathy toward patients’ right to die in dignity affected a ruling by the Supreme Court in May 2009. The court set the country’s first precedent in this area by ruling in favor of a family who wished to remove an elderly relative in a vegetative state from a respirator. Cardinal Stephen Kim also chose to end his medical treatment and die quietly at home.

But despite these changes in sentiment, laws to support euthanasia lag far behind. After the 2009 ruling, Seoul National University Hospital and some other hospitals now allow patients with incurable diseases to refuse further treatment. But many hesitate due to legal questions. Since regulations for cancer care were revised in June, those with late-stage cancer are given tools to ease their pain and prepare for death. But this exemption on intense medical care is only applied to patients with severe cancer.

Prolonged medical care regardless of a patient’s will is painful for patients and families. We must debate the legalization of voluntary euthanasia by specifying guidelines for patients to resist or suspend treatment when they have no prospect of recovery. Two bills on euthanasia are sitting idle in the National Assembly. They could be the start to better end-of-life care.

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