Luo Diandian campaigns for death with dignity

General's daughter Luo Diandian has met fierce resistance to her views on dying and death. She explains why people should change

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 December, 2012, 4:41am

Most mainlanders spare no effort to obtain the best medical treatment available to extend the lives of loved ones in the terminal stage of an illness, but 61-year-old Luo Diandian is calling for a different approach: let loved ones die with dignity rather than draw out their suffering. It's a mindset that is understandably met with a lot of resistance in mainland society, where death remains a taboo subject, but the youngest daughter of revolutionary general Luo Ruiqing has continued to push forwards with a campaign she calls "Choice and Dignity", despite the opposition she frequently encounters.

Why did you launch this type of campaign?

About 10 years ago my friends and I had to make a hard choice about whether to ask doctors to continue treating our elderly relatives who were unconscious and at death's door, and whose bodies were inserted with numerous tubes in order to maintain their lives, or tell the doctors to pull the plugs. Death is inevitable for everyone, and all of us should think about our deaths. In a situation when we are declared by doctors to be incurable and given up to six months to live, shall we choose to lie in a medical ward, surrounded by life-support machines and filled with tubes, or should we die naturally and without radical treatment? In China, we don't like to speak the word "death", but I believe that many people have considered this. In 2006, we held a forum in Beijing called "Seizing Our Destinies", and it was attended by dozens of people, including doctors, lawyers, writers and some Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference delegates. We concluded that we should open a website to express our view that everyone is entitled to choose how to die, and we want to advocate dying with dignity. We want to remind the public that it's necessary for each adult to write a living will about his or her preferences, in terms of medical treatment, when he or she reaches the terminal stage of life. That is in contrast to the current scenario in which family members generally decide.

What's the difference between what you are advocating and euthanasia?

They are considerably different. In my eyes, euthanasia is a practice to speed up death at the consent of patients; while our proposal is to let nature take its course and never procrastinate or accelerate the rhythm of death. What we suggest is that, when we are declared by doctors to be in the terminal stage of our lives, we don't need to be hooked up to respirators; when our heartbeat stops, we don't need CPR. Don't give us expensive antibiotics, and don't let us receive other medical treatment that will cause us pain. After terminating the life-supporting system, we believe hospice care and the love of family members are imperative. As a former doctor with decades of experience, I find that patients who receive treatment incorporating cutting-edge technology and medicine end up facing a dilemma, because if they want to die they can't, and if they want to live, they are already seriously ill and it's impossible for them to recover. I see them suffering a lot.

What has been the public's response towards your push for "death with dignity"?

Since our website, www. was launched in 2006, thousands of internet users have registered and signed a living will there about their choice when facing death. At first, our website had only hundreds of members, but that number shot up remarkably following the airing of a CCTV talk show in 2010, in which I was invited to introduce my book, Who decides my Death?, which has been well-received, even though the publisher initially worried that nobody would buy it, given that its name carried the word "death". The first edition sold out within three months, and additional books had to be printed. I am also proud to say it is available in the Hong Kong market. So far our website has been visited nearly one million times. Sometimes our volunteers survey people on the street, and most people run away, saying it is ominous to discuss death. I think that the more opposition it faces from society, the more valuable our crusade becomes.

Why do most hospitals object to your promotion of these ideas?

They said that, since hospitals are places to save people's lives and heal their wounds, it's not appropriate to distribute our material there. But I know there is another important under-the-table reason for the hospitals' attitude. According to figures I received from the authorities, about 80 per cent of a person's medical bills during his whole life are for the measures utilised to save him when he is in his final days. So many hospitals are motivated to try to save late-stage patients, even though they are clearly aware that what they are doing is fruitless.

Can you give us some specific cases of opposition?

In a sensational case in May, a doctor in Hangzhou [Zhejiang ] who followed his father's will and sent him - a terminal cancer patient - back home to a village, rather than carry on with treatment, came under fire. Of course I sided with this doctor. The father enjoyed the final months of his life by returning to his rural hometown, growing plants and talking to farmers every day. He passed away peacefully. But a slew of people lambasted this doctor in online comments, called him or sent him text messages. They couldn't understand how he could just let his father die without doing anything to save him. I also met a young man on another TV programme recently who told me that he was raised by his grandmother, and she once told him that as long as he still has any money, he should try to save her to keep her alive for as long as possible, because she feared death. I told this man that it is good for people to voice their wishes in terms of death. That way, doctors and family relatives can obey the patient's desire to continue treatment or not, and people will keep their dignity in such circumstances.

What's the next step for your campaign?

We have decided to establish an NGO called "The Association Promoting Living Wills". This will come into existence in several months' time.

Does your princeling background help your effort?

It's not much help. The common thing between what I do now and what my father did in his early days is that both of us are fighting for people's freedom and liberation.


Luo spoke to Alice Yan