On Monday last week, the legislature held a public hearing on the Patient Right to Autonomy Act (病人自主權利法), which was passed in 2016 and came into effect three years later. One of the speakers was Fu Chun-hao (傅俊豪), son of basketball commentator Frank Fu (傅達仁), who chose to die by assisted suicide in Switzerland in 2018 because he was suffering from pancreatic cancer. Fu Chun-hao took the opportunity to renew his call for the quick passage of a “death with dignity” law along the lines of those adopted by some US states.
Taiwan has a falling birthrate and society is rapidly aging as the average life expectancy keeps getting longer. When people are suffering from incurable terminal illnesses, but cannot choose to die, their suffering also extends to their families and friends. There have been news reports of the family members of terminally ill people causing their deaths or choosing to end their lives together.
Life is precious, but no one can avoid the path that leads from birth to old age, sickness and death. Everyone hopes to live healthily and die peacefully, but we cannot decide our own fate. For that reason, some people are pressing for the “death with dignity” law, so that when people grow old, they can leave this world in a dignified manner, without having to suffer for a long time.
If a doctor is no longer able to improve the health of a sick person and can only prolong their life until they inevitably die, what can the doctor do for that person? Can we not allow doctors to help these people end their life a little sooner, so that they and their families suffer a little less?
This is a question on the meaning of life and of what dignity a person is allowed to have at the end of it. Taiwan’s ruling and opposition parties should face up to the major issues of life and human rights, and of the suffering sick people and their families endure. Lawmakers should engage in broad and deep discussion, while referring to the precedents set in other countries.
Taiwan already has the Hospice Palliative Care Act (安寧緩和醫療條例) and the Patient Right to Autonomy Act, which allow sick patients or their families to reduce their suffering by accepting or declining the use of life-sustaining treatments.
However, the laws only serve to mitigate such patients’ suffering, and cannot relieve the torment they might suffer at the end of their lives, or the wasted money and medical resources.
Although the right to life cannot be lightly set aside, what elderly and terminally ill people really want is to live out their lives with the greatest possible health, happiness and dignity. Rather than making them suffer in their final days, it would be better to allow them to bid farewell in a carefree and dignified manner.
Taiwanese are gradually forming a consensus around this idea, and talking about death is no longer taboo. Likewise, the government should pay attention to people’s real needs. Let us hope that President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration will have the courage to step forward, just as it helped make Taiwan the first Asian country to legally recognize same-sex marriage.
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