Seoul National University Hospital said Monday that it will accept a patients right to passive euthanasia if he or she is terminally ill or relatives agree to follow the will of such a patient. The hospital said that in 2007, 85 percent of 656 patients suffering from terminal cancer chose to halt life support and died. It is surprising that so many patients chose to stop life support, but more so that the hospital released the data. The hospital apparently did so to promote revision of domestic laws and regulations to better reflect the bitter reality of patients and their families.
Last year, Yonsei Severance Hospital appealed a court decision to remove the respirator from a patient in a permanent vegetative state and sought to refer the case to the Supreme Court. A debate then ensued over a patients right to die. Supporters of euthanasia say terminally ill patients and their relatives should be relieved of their pain. Opponents, however, insist that immoral behavior to end life cannot be justified. Since Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan died in February with specific instructions not to continue life support, however, the Korean publics view on euthanasia is changing.
The United States and European countries back a terminally ill AIDS patients right to die. Taiwan in 2000 introduced a similar measure under which medical staff refrain from reviving terminally ill patients who left instructions not to be kept alive. Hospitals in Japanese have the right to halt treatment if no measures are left to revive a patient.
In Korea, however, relatives of a terminally ill patient can sue doctors who remove life support. In 2004, a doctor at Boramae Medical Center in Seoul was convicted as an accomplice to murder after allowing a cerebral hemorrhage patient to leave the hospital at the request of the patients family.
Seoul National University Hospital is probably not the only hospital to allow passive euthanasia, in which CPR and respirators are not used on a terminally ill patient who loses consciousness based on doctors judgment and the agreement of patients or their relatives. Korea needs to face reality by legalizing the right to die without delay. The Supreme Courts final ruling on the 2004 case is expected to reflect such a reality.
Life is more valuable than anything. The right to die with dignity, however, is as important as the right to live a happy life. Passive euthanasia should be allowed in the case of a patient who wishes to cease useless life support, but not active euthanasia, which allows a doctor to artificially shorten the life of a patient with an incurable illness. The National Assembly needs to rush passing bills on standards, procedures and measures to allow passive euthanasia.