SEOUL, South Korea – Doctors treating a comatose woman must remove her from life support as her family requested, the Supreme Court said Thursday — the first time it has ruled in favor of a patient's right to die.
The top court's decision marks a break for South Korea, where societal mores and laws have been shaped by Confucian ideals that call for preserving and honoring the body. But there are signs of a shift in thinking on the issue, and earlier this week a major hospital in Seoul became the first to formulate a "right to die" policy.
The 76-year-old patient has been in a vegetative state since suffering brain damage in February 2008. Her family asked doctors at Yonsei University's Severance Hospital in Seoul to remove her from life support, saying she had always opposed keeping people alive with machines if there was no chance of revival.
Physicians have testified there is no chance she will survive if removed from life support.
The hospital refused, citing a South Korean law that forbids physicians from taking patients off respirators or life support.
The children of the woman, identified only by the surname Kim, sued the hospital for the right to remove her from life support.
In November, a Seoul District Court sided with the family and ordered patient's respirator removed. Severance Hospital appealed the ruling, but an appellate court upheld the verdict in February.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld the rulings and ordered the hospital to remove the woman from life support, Chief Justice Lee Yong-hun said, calling the family's request "just."
"It can tarnish people's dignity" if doctors continue medical treatment on patients who have no chance of revival and are expected to die soon, Lee said.
Severance Hospital responded by saying it will remove the patient from life support after consultations with her family and the hospital's ethics committee.
Hospital chief Park Chang-il said the facility will also begin allowing terminally ill patients and those in persistent vegetative states to be removed from life support after consulting with the ethics committee.
Park, however, called for caution, saying: "Dignified death should be implemented very carefully and strictly."
The patient's children said through their lawyer that they were "grateful" for the Supreme Court's decision and that they believe it will reduce their mother's pain and end her life with dignity.
"Still, they were sad about the fact that their mother won't have much time to live after being taken off a respirator," said lawyer Baek Kyoung-hee.
In South Korea, where Confucianism informs many customs and which is also home to a sizable Christian community, euthanasia and suicide were long shunned as violations of the body.
But public sentiment has shifted in recent years. A 2008 survey commissioned by the National Cancer Center found that 87.5 percent of those surveyed favored removing patients from life support who are facing imminent death. The survey polled 1,006 adults by telephone in September but did not give a margin of error.
Though South Korean law bars doctors from removing patients from life support, many hospitals have begun disconnecting machines from some patients with no chance of revival, based on the patient's wishes or family members' requests, hospital officials said.
Earlier this week, Seoul National University Hospital announced it would let terminal cancer patients or their family members decide whether to stay alive on life support — the first time a South Korean hospital has formulated an explicit policy on the issue.
A Christian group said the decision could set a dangerous precedent.
"We want to point out that this verdict might bring about the wrong perception that human beings can choose the timing of their deaths, and we have concerns that it could lead to a trend belittling human lives for economic reasons and other burdens," said Chang Ik-sung, an official at the National Council of Churches in Korea.