S. Korea high court grants right to die

Associated Press / May 22, 2009
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SEOUL - The Supreme Court ordered a Seoul hospital to heed a family's request to suspend life support for a 76-year-old woman in a coma, a landmark ruling that heralded a shift in South Korean attitudes on death.

South Korea's societal mores and laws have largely been shaped by Confucian ideals that call for preserving and honoring the body. As recently as 2004, two doctors who took a severely brain-damaged patient off life support were convicted of "abetting murder" and received suspended prison terms.

But public sentiment has shifted in recent years. A 2008 survey indicated a majority of South Koreans favor stopping life support for the terminally ill.

In February, a group of lawmakers proposed a "right to die with dignity" bill, but parliament has yet to vote on it for fear of a backlash from South Korea's sizable Christian and Buddhist communities.

The 76-year-old patient at the heart of yesterday's ruling has been in a vegetative state since suffering brain damage in February 2008. Her family had asked doctors at Yonsei University's Severance Hospital to remove her from life support, saying she had always opposed keeping people alive on machines if there was no chance of revival.

The hospital refused, citing a South Korean law that forbids physicians from taking patients off respirators or life support.

The children of the woman, identified only by the surname Kim, sued.

In November, a Seoul District Court sided with the family and ordered the patient's respirator removed. Severance Hospital appealed the ruling, but an appellate court upheld the verdict in February.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court upheld both rulings and ordered the hospital to remove the woman from life support, Chief Justice Lee Yong-hun said, calling the family's request "just." Continuing to treat patients with no chance of revival "can tarnish people's dignity," Lee said.