Court grants right to die
The Supreme Court yesterday allowed life support systems to be removed from a vegetative patient, ending a long discussion on terminally ill patients' right to die with dignity.
The top court ruled in favor of a comatose patient's family who last year filed a suit requesting the Yonsei Severance Hospital remove the life support machines.
"A patient may be considered in his or her dying phase, when it is circumstantially evident that he or she may end up dying in a very short time," said Chief Justice Lee Yong-hoon in the verdict. "In such cases, the continuance of painful and insignificant treatment may violate the patient's basic human dignity."
The patient, surnamed Kim, fell comatose last February due to brain damage caused during a medical examination. Her children asked for the removal of life support, claiming that their mother was unwilling to be kept artificially alive.
Upon the hospital's refusal, they filed a suit and won in both the lower court and appeal court last November and this February respectively.
The patient had refused, years ago, surgery that might have prolonged the life of her deceased husband. She had always made it clear that she too wished a natural death, said both courts in their original rulings.
The Supreme Court, in yesterday's final verdict, joined the lower courts in respecting the patient's will.
The court, however, stated that the right to die was only to be allowed under limited circumstances.
"A patient should be beyond any possibility of recovery, and also express his or her will to end medical treatment," added Lee in the ruling.
When the patient is incapable of elucidating his or her opinion, such as when they are in a coma, doctors and families may deduct his or her true intentions from the words and behavior of the patient before the coma began.
"Even when these conditions are satisfied, the termination is to be approved by a medical committee and executed by a licensed doctor," said Lee.
The Supreme Court also pointed out, as did the two lower courts, that proper legislation on the issue was required.
"We welcome the Supreme Court's decision, which will allow the patients to decide on their own human dignity," said Shin Hyun-ho, the lawyer representing Kim's family.
The family members demanded that the hospital remove the life support machines as soon as possible.
The Yonsei Severance Hospital consented to the court ruling and announced a three-phase standard by which to judge whether the patient may be allowed to discontinue life support. Kim's life support machines, however, will be taken off once the confirmed verdict is handed down and thoroughly checked by both family members and the hospital ethics committee, said officials.
"Though Kim's case will be handled based on the Supreme Court's ruling, detailed legislation is required in order to deal with future cases," said the hospital director Park Chang-il in his official statement after the ruling.
By Bae Hyun-jung