Mercy killing still a hot button issue, but is it changing?

Updated: 2014-01-14 08:28

By By CHEN JIA (China Daily USA)

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Hanging over the grey area of the law, the topic of euthanasia has long been debated in both China and the United States, with more and more people developing a more open and tolerant attitude towards it.

Though voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide are not as taboo anymore in some states of the United States, recent California headlines just put the country's media back on an old discussion track again — what is a good death?

The discussion has been triggered by a court battle between a children's hospital and an Oakland family over the fate of a brain-dead 13-year-old California girl, Jahi McMath.

The hospital wanted to help her life end as it was "basically organ support" rather than "life support". But the family refused and insisted on praying for her to wake-up, even though their finances couldn't afford to keep her body on a ventilator for long.

No one wouldn't be touched and feel sorry for the family when the mother told a local television station that the family couldn't imagine how the hospital could think of ending her daughter's life with New Year's Day around the corner.

The family won a court order to transfer the girl to an undisclosed care facility.

However, many medical ethicists were brave enough to step forward and challenge people's sympathy and their stereotype about death. They criticized the operators of the unnamed facility and said that it had nothing to do with saving the child's life but would rather cause long-term financial and emotional harm to the McMath family.

"What could they be thinking? Their thinking must be disordered, from a medical point of view, there is a word for this: crazy," Laurence McCullough, a professor at the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told USA Today.

San Francisco attorney Christopher Dolan has also been widely blamed for giving false hope to the desperate family, said a report in the Los Angeles Times.

It said at least three neurologists had confirmed Jahi was unable to breathe on her own, because there was no blood flow to her brain and had no sign of electrical activity three days after she underwent a surgery on Dec 9, 2013.

The surgery at Children's Hospital Oakland removed her tonsils, adenoids and uvula and then the girl went into cardiac arrest, which caused extensive hemorrhaging in her brain. Alameda County coroner had issued a death certification for the girl.

As early as 2006, a Field Poll had shown that around 70 percent of Californians support giving the terminally ill an option of receiving life-ending medication.

"Generally speaking, Californians tend to be more open to allowing an individual to make a decision rather than having something prohibited through government fiat," the poll director Mark DiCamillo told the San Francisco Chronicle.

According to a recent survey in China, around 70 percent of over 3,400 residents said they didn't object to euthanasia or could accept the idea as well.

Covering 34 cities across the country, the survey was conducted by the public opinion research center at Shanghai Jiao Tong University through a computer assisted telephone interview.

By August of 2013, more than 10,000 Chinese have registered and signed living wills though a website that calls for “choice and dignity” —letting loved ones die with dignity rather than draw out their suffering.

Though research in ethics and public views do promote developments in this direction, active euthanasia and assisted suicide are still illegal in today's China and most states in the US.

According to the nonprofit website, the US federal government and all 50 states and the District of Columbia prohibit euthanasia under general homicide laws. The federal government does not have assisted suicide laws. Those laws are generally handled at the state level in the country.

Four states have legalized physician-assisted suicide, including four legalized physician-assisted suicide via legislation and one state via court ruling, according to the website.

The other 46 states and Washington DC still consider "assisted suicide illegal", of which 39 states have laws prohibiting assisted suicide, while three states (AL, MA, and WV) and the District of Columbia prohibit assisted suicide by common law, it said.

The remaining four have no specific laws regarding assisted suicide, which may not recognize common law or are otherwise unclear on the legality of assisted suicide, it said.

As a derived word from Greek, voluntary euthanasia means "good death", which refers to the practice of ending (or helping to end) a life in a painless manner, and keeping the dignity of a person who is terminally ill. It’s also called mercy killing.

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