Assisted Suicide in China: A New Case and a New Debate

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I’ve been dealing with this topic, both personally and academically, for almost thirty years. While I write about a wide variety of issues on this blog, assisted suicide is probably up there in the top ten in terms of what I find fundamentally important to us as human beings and our interactions with government.

This is heavy stuff. Here in China, where assisted suicide is illegal, people are talking about a recent case that sent one man to jail for two years:

Zhong Yichun, an elderly farmer from East China’s Jiangxi province, never expected that helping his friend Zeng Qingxiang to commit suicide would bring him a two-year prison sentence.

Zhong buried Zeng last October as part of an agreement they made regarding Zeng’s suicide. Zeng overdosed on sleeping pills and laid in a hole in the ground; Zhong called out to him 15 minutes later to ensure that he was dead before burying him.

A police investigation showed that Zeng suffered from a mental illness and had begged Zhong to help him commit suicide several times.

Obviously there are some details missing here. What exactly was this mental illness? Was the friend compos mentis when he requested Zhong to help him end his life? What exactly did Zhong do to verify his friend’s status before burying him?

Why did this botched attempt take place? Many possible reasons come to mind, but one conclusion seems clear. If the law allowed for a formal process of assisted suicide, Zhong not only wouldn’t have been placed in this horrible position, but the act itself would have been supervised by an expert.

This all sounds grisly and sensational, but I’ve been through these issues twice now (once earlier this year). These are real, agonizing decisions families have to make, and unfortunately the legal system in many countries just makes things worse.

What’s stopping countries from adopting assisted suicide regimes? In many instances, it’s the fault of religion and religious organizations (just one of the many reasons I am a ‘muscular’ atheist). From what I recall, in the U.S. only two states have legalized assisted suicide, and the constitutional issues have gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (these are right to privacy cases). Efforts in other states have been stymied, at least in part, from well-organized lobbying from folks like the Catholic Church.

Their basic argument? God doesn’t like suicide. Funny how many organized religions are against suicide, but state-sponsored executions are just fine with them. {sigh}

Needless to say, my position is that God doesn’t belong in the legislative process, and if I don’t believe in God and want to kill myself, then who cares what the Bible says? Apparently this bit of rationality is not sufficiently persuasive for state legislatures in most of the United States.

China has the advantage of not being under the thrall of organized religion. Therefore we only need to worry about the practical objections to assisted suicide, which are significant and complex. These relate to administration of an assisted suicide system. How to ensure that people are in their right minds when they request assistance with suicide? Who will approve requests, and how will that process be governed? What to do about folks who want to kill themselves because their illnesses are draining financial resources from their families? Who will be eligible for the program, just the terminally ill or others?

This only scratches the surface. While I am a fierce advocate of the principle of assisted suicide, I would never minimize the challenges. On the other hand, I think these challenges can be met, even in a country like China that has many problems with local government.

A slow, gradual process is the way to go. I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment:

Yan Sanzhong, director of the Department of Law at Jiangxi Normal University, said China should analyze the basic principles of its criminal law and take steps to gradually promote the legalization of euthanasia.

“China should first accumulate judicial experience in handling cases regarding euthanasia. The Supreme Court can then come up with judicial interpretations and guidance and finally legalize euthanasia at the proper time,” said Yang.

With China’s rapidly-aging population, the skyrocketing costs of health care, and the pressure placed on children due to the One Child Policy, this issue is not going away. I hope the government is not swayed by the “Life First” crowd, which favors inaction. This is a medical issue and a matter of personal freedom. Not to be crude, but if abortion and the death penalty are both legal, arguments against assisted suicide that are made from a “moral” or “ethical” point of view do not hold water.

Thus endeth the sermon.

2 responses on “Assisted Suicide in China: A New Case and a New Debate

  1. S.K. Cheung

    That is a particularly grisly case, but also not a precise one for analyzing the principle of assisted suicide. If that guy was not mentally competent, then he needs medical treatment, not someone to help him do something he may not want done if he had all his wits about him. Also, usually assisted suicide refers to situations where a person gets all the help required to prepare him/her to commit suicide, but the person takes or initiates the decisive act him/herself…like taking a fatal dose of meds, or starting a fatal injection of something or other. In this case, the victim fell asleep with pills, but it’s unclear whether he was still alive when hisvfriend buried him. Not answering to a call might mean he was unconscious, but doesn’t mean he’s already dead. So the friend may have committed the actual act of killing him. Practically speaking, not a huge difference. But the principle is much different.

    That said, I agree there should be no religious hangup in china as there is in the US, particularly since china is an atheist state. However, the religious hand-wringing might get replaced with cultural taboos.

    1. Stan Post author

      Not really enough info to make any conclusions as to that case. “Mental illness” could mean a number of different things, only some of which might be treatable.

      Also, when we talk about euthanasia/assisted suicide, it’s not just patients doing it to themselves. In a lot of cases, for example involving paralysis, that’s not possible. I would also argue that with the final act of pulling the plug, why should it matter whose hand is doing it as long as there is full and informed consent?