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A man's constitutional battle reignites 'death with dignity' debate

Oct. 2, 2023 - 16:01 By Son Ji-hyoung

Lee Myung-shik, paralyzed from the chest down after an adverse reaction to an injection to treat a skin disease, cannot sit for longer than three hours due to the debilitating pain in his legs.

It means the 62-year-old, who wishes to bring forward his death, is unable to take the 11-hour flight to Switzerland where assisted suicide is legal.

"My legs are not just paralyzed, but they are also suffering pain beyond imagination ... so it's getting harder to withstand the pain," Lee spoke virtually from his home on Jeju Island at a press conference on Sept. 18. Lee, who uses a wheelchair, could not attend the conference in Seoul because he is unable to board a plane.

"One day, I hope that dying with dignity must be respected when speaking about human dignity, as much as human life is being dignified."

Lee plans to file an individual application with the Constitutional Court of Korea as early as mid-October, according to his lawyers. Lee is seeking to prove the unconstitutionality of a legislative omission, on the grounds that Seoul's legislators have ignored their duty to make a specific law to defend an individual's constitutional right.

People like Lee -- enduring the pain while not knowing when it would end -- argue that the current laws leave them with no other end-of-life option than suicide, which is not a dignified death, his lawyers said.

"Those who are suffering excruciating pain and have no choice to end their life with dignity is seeing their rights of self determination being violated," said Kim Hyun, senior partner at local law firm Sechang and one of Lee's legal representatives.

End-of-life options have been minimal in Korea, even to those who are suffering agnozing pain with no signs of alleviation through contemporary medical technology. Practical discourse to give terminally ill patients more options for dignified death have largely been stagnant.

In 2022, Rep. Ahn Gyu-back of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea proposed a bill to legalize assisted suicide.

A passage of the bill would allow a terminally ill patient suffering unbearable pain to request that the patient undergo assisted suicide with the consent of at least three medical doctors. The bill, however, has remained dormant at the National Assembly.

The only available means of death with dignity in Korea is to stop getting life-sustaining treatment, such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation, hemodialysis and anti-cancer drugs. Korea in 2016 introduced legal grounds over an individual's right to choose not to get life-sustaining treatment on condition that the individual is experiencing excruciating pain and has zero chances of recovery. The law came into effect in 2018.

This is despite the Constitution Court ruling in 2009 that the government does not hold any constitutional accountability to ensure life-sustaining treatment must be provided through legislation. In the same ruling, meanwhile, the court recognized an individual's choice to stop getting the life-sustaining treatment is a constitutional right.

Doctors are also reluctant to back moves to allow medically assisted suicide, in which a suicide pill would be prescribed, fearing criminal liability.

In a 2004 Supreme Court ruling, doctors were given a suspended sentence for a failure to keep a patient in critical condition hospitalized and let the patient return home, as the court interpreted the act as "aiding and abetting a murder" despite the patient's family member's consent.

Such climate discourages patients and passes judgement on what should be an individual's choice, end-of-life advocates say.

"Punishing any forms of assisted suicide under the current criminal law so that these options cannot even be considered, deprives patients in certain situations of the right to determine their own fate," said Choi Da-hye, head of the organization Korea Association of Right to Die.