The conversation around euthanasia and assisted suicide in Hong Kong started in 2003, when quadriplegic Hongkonger Tang Siu-pun wrote to former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, asking to end his own life in dignity.
“Time has become meaningless for me. I look at the clock ticking second after second every single day and what am I waiting for? It’s just the moment when death comes,” he wrote.
Tang spent his remaining years fighting for a dignified death but, sadly, saw little progress before passing away in 2012. Referring to the act of intentionally ending a life, usually due to suffering or terminal illness, the terms ‘euthanasia‘ and ‘assisted suicide‘ are often used interchangeably, however, there is a distinction.
Euthanasia (meaning ‘good death‘ in Greek) sees a physician take action to end a patient’s life, for instance, by administering a lethal injection of drugs. Whereas in the case of assisted suicide, a doctor intentionally provides drugs, but the patient administers it themselves.
In Asia, no countries have legalised euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide so far. However, it’s legal to withhold life support in many countries and cities, including Hong Kong, South Korea and India, as long as the patient requests it and the doctor agrees it’s in their best interest.
If the patient is not in a condition to make a decision, then relatives may propose withdrawing life support. And for those without any immediate family, the final decision rests with the doctor.
In Hong Kong, only physicians can withdraw life support, otherwise it’s considered murder. Assisting others to end their life is illegal and perpetrators are subject to up to 14 years of imprisonment.
Carmen Yau, an activist for patient autonomy says the debate in Hong Kong revolves around medical professional ethics. Many doctors and nurses dedicate their careers to saving lives, not ending them. “I want patients to have the choice to live or die,” says Yau. Instead, she says there is an “imbalanced relationship between patients, family members and doctors.”
Around the world, Switzerland has one of the most relaxed policies when it comes to end-of-life medical decisions. The country allows foreigners to arrange assisted suicides, drawing more than 200 ‘suicide tourists’ per year via government-approved organisations like Dignitas. However, they must demonstrate that they have a terminal illness, unendurable disability or unbearable pain.
History of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia
Uruguay becomes first country to legalise euthanasia
Switzerland begins allowing assisted suicide
Britain passes the Suicide Act, punishing anyone who helps another person commit suicide with up to 14 years in prison
Eight states in the US pass ‘Right to Die’ bills
The World Federation of Right to Die Societies forms
Colombia legalises euthanasia, however a contradictory law punishes doctors with a six months to three years in prison for enabling ‘mercy killings’
The Netherlands legalises euthanasia and assisted suicide
Quebec adopts physician-assisted suicide
Colombia revisits law, introducing new protocol and safeguards for doctors
Germany legalises assisted suicide in extreme cases, though contradictory laws remain
Belgium becomes the only country to authorise euthanasia of minors
Victoria, Australia, is set to legalize assisted suicide for terminally ill patients