Volume 1, Issue 12 (Originally Published 21 May 2016)
May 21, 2009 – South Korea Upholds Right to Die
On this day in 2009, the South Korean Supreme Court upheld a decision to allow a brain-damaged patient the right to die. The 76 year old woman had been comatose for over a year and unable to survive without a respirator machine. The hospital repeatedly denied requests from her family to take her off life support, arguing that the patient was still able to respond to external stimuli.
The Court held that continuing life support would impinge on the dignity of her life, given that there was no chance for revival. Chief Justice Lee Yong-hoon held that doctors should ‘make efforts to confirm patients’ wishes to die with dignity’, and to respect those wishes once patients entered into the ‘irrevocable death stage’. The Court also stated that express confirmation is not necessary, as a wish to die could be imputed or inferred from a number of factors, including drawing a presumption of the patient’s wishes from the patient’s relationship with family and friends.
The ruling was criticized by the Minister for Health, who felt that legalisation of ‘dying with dignity’ should be put to public opinion hearings, rather than decided by the courts. Conversely, the Korean Medical Association supported the decision, adding further that they would like to see uniform legislation introduced and guidelines put in place for doctors.
The landmark decision departed from previous law which criminalised attempts to help end the life of terminally ill patients. In 2007, a father was given a four- year suspended sentence for removing respirator from his brain-dead son.