Right to die is for debate, but not assisted suicide

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 August, 2007, 12:00am

Euthanasia raises such difficult personal, moral and legal questions that societies around the world have struggled to come to terms with the issue of making it lawful. In Hong Kong, the question has attracted public attention as a result of the heart-rending case of Tang Siu-pun, a 37-year-old quadriplegic who has been dependent on others for most of his basic needs for 16 years. In 2003, he wrote to politicians demanding that the law be changed so he could make a rational choice to die in peace and dignity with medical assistance.

The controversial nature of the issue has lately been reflected by the outpouring of sharply different views after Mr Tang reiterated his call in a book published last month. While some argue that the right to end one's own life should be allowed under certain circumstances, others feel strongly that it would be wrong to do anything to encourage anyone to end their life prematurely.

At a forum yesterday, for example, Sam Lee Yuan-tai, who became a quadriplegic after a diving accident 24 years ago, made a passionate case against euthanasia. If the handicapped got adequate support to lead a full life, they would not be thinking about ending their lives prematurely, he said.

The two quadriplegics' divergent views show that while a person's physical condition has a great impact on his attitude towards life, the level of support he gets makes a huge difference. Opponents of euthanasia also argue that no one should feel, for reasons of illness, handicap or age, that they should end their life to avoid becoming a burden to their family.

The argument has been put in perspective by the suicide last week of a 107-year-old Yau Ma Tei woman in relatively good health. She reportedly told her 87-year-old son that she did not want to be a burden to him. Perhaps she might have opted to live on had the family been better off financially.

A legal right to euthanasia exists only in the Netherlands and Belgium, where it applies only to the terminally ill who are in extreme pain. But what Mr Tang wants is 'assisted suicide' for healthy people with a disability. The distinction is one that anyone debating the pros and cons of assisted death must consider. With our ageing population and increased access to life-prolonging medical technology, Hong Kong has to consider the morals of allowing the terminally ill to end their lives with dignity. But helping the disabled commit suicide would be an alarming proposition, since it might put pressure on the infirm to die for the 'public good'.