Most Chinese have open mind toward euthanasia

Updated: 2013-12-31 00:42

By Wang Hongyi in Shanghai (China Daily)

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A recent survey shows that more than two-thirds of Chinese have an open and tolerant attitude toward euthanasia, which has long been debated — and banned — in the country.

According to the survey, conducted by the public opinion research center at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, about 70 percent of the more than 3,400 polled residents from 34 cities said they do not object to euthanasia or can accept the idea.

The survey, released last week, was conducted through a computer-assisted telephone interview.

"Euthanasia has been widely discussed around the world," said Zhong Yang, the research center's director. "In China, people's attitudes toward death have changed with the times, and more people hope to die painlessly."

The topic of death has long been taboo in China.

In Chinese tradition, the word for "death" is considered bad luck and isn't mentioned, especially on special days like birthdays and holidays when elderly people are present. In most cases, people spare no effort to obtain the best medical care available to extend the lives of their loved ones, even if only for a brief time, who are in the terminal stage of a disease.

In recent years, a series of cases about assisted suicide, allegedly to ease suffering, has given rise to a nationwide debate on euthanasia, which is banned under current Chinese law.

In 2011, a 70-year-old farmer, Zhong Yichun, from Jiangxi province was sentenced to two years in prison for criminal negligence resulting in the death of another person, after Zhong had helped his friend, Zeng Qingxiang, commit suicide. Zeng suffered from a mental illness and had begged Zhong to help him commit suicide several times. Zhong buried Zeng, who had overdosed on sleeping pills, local police said.

In Guangzhou, a 41-year-old migrant worker, Deng Mingjian, admitted buying pesticide at his paralyzed mother's request to help her end her life. He originally reported her death to police in May 2011 as being from natural causes.

While many people are sympathetic to the principle of euthanasia, the current legal system regards it as a form of criminal homicide.

"When people's quality of life is worse than dying, they have the right to decide death. Only sick people can fully know their own pain, and their will should be respected," said 30-year-old Wang Lin, who now works in Shanghai.

"My grandpa spent his final days in extreme pain, although the whole family did what we could do to save him," she said. "It was out of pure love, but for the sick person, it's not as helpful as expected."

Yu Hai, a sociology professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, said that euthanasia is a complex issue that includes many factors, including ethics issues, jurisprudence and medical treatment and technology.

"Although many people subjectively identify with euthanasia, it's hard to conclude that they would practice it in reality," Yu told China Daily.

Yu said that the country so far is not ready to legalize euthanasia.

"It's too early to practice euthanasia in the country right now. It might be more feasible to explore ways to make people die with dignity and lessen the pain," he said.

Indeed, some government departments and social organizations have begun to offer palliative-care services for people in the terminal stage of an illness.

As early as 2006, a campaign called Choice and Dignity was launched in Beijing, which called for a different approach to death. It promised to let loved ones die with dignity rather than draw out their suffering. Its website has been visited nearly 1 million times, and by August this year, more than 10,000 people have registered and signed living wills, which outline their choices when facing death.

In 2012, Shanghai announced plans to provide hospice care for dying cancer patients requiring local community health centers to provide palliative care. Other cities in the country such as Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Tianjin carried out similar work.

Unlike traditional medical care, such palliative care focuses on keeping patients comfortable and relieving their pain rather than curing them. It offers a comprehensive program for patients who are facing a life-threatening illness in the last months or days of life. Well-trained staff members are working to meet the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of terminally ill patients.

"Patients living here are expected to live no more than 90 days. What we do is to ease their pain as much as possible, trying to make them spend their last time of life with dignity," said Chen Qi, a nurse from Shanghai Linfen Community Health Service Center. Founded in 1995, the center is one of the country's first hospitals to provide hospice care for dying cancer patients.