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To die with dignity in South Korea

Case showcases changing attitudes toward death in a traditionally religious and conservative society.

Traditions are deeply rooted in Confucian beliefs in South Korea, which has a roughly 30 percent Christian population and large Buddhist influence. South Korea’s highest court granted a brain-dead woman the right to die in a case that seems to reflect the country's changing attitudes toward death. (Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters)

SEOUL — Shin Seung-nam, a 44-year-old homemaker, let out a sigh of relief when she heard that doctors had finally removed a comatose woman from life support. South Korea's highest court had just granted the woman the right to die, something Shin had been an adamant supporter of.

Shin was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. Although her health is currently good, she lives with the nagging question of “what if.” What if cancer hit her again; what if something happened to her while in treatment; what if she suddenly fell into a coma … how would her husband and teenage twins deal with the situation?

“If I’m not able to recover, it’s a relief to know that I can end my life without having to drag on with things,” she said, sitting in a park after a check-up at the hospital. “When I first heard of the case, I immediately said I supported it.”

The ruling was the first of its kind in the country. It granted the patient, who had been in a vegetative state for more than a year, the right to be removed from a life support system, based on remarks she had made before falling comatose about the treatment she wanted.

For a country deeply rooted in Confucian traditions, the case seems to reflect evolving attitudes toward death. Expected public outrage over the right to "die with dignity" — as the case was dubbed — never materialized.

With a large Christian population and Buddhist influences, alongside the Confucian traditions, the country had traditionally been reluctant to accept the idea of ending one's life at will. Death has widely been considered something inevitable rather than within the realms of human control.

A teaching of Confucius says that all people received their body, hair, and skin as a gift, and therefore, they should be preserved as a way of honoring their parents. Such teachings are thought to have contributed to a conservative view in the culture toward suicide and death.

But there are people like Shin, who has thought differently since long ago, when her mother went into a coma during a medical examination.

“I prayed to God every day that he take her in the morning, just like she died in her sleep,” she said. “I said I would receive all the punishment, but asked that he just let her go.”

Shin described the experience as a time when the family members scattered in all directions. Shin, who was 34 at the time, and her younger siblings found themselves trying to dig up the money to keep their mother in the hospital attached to tubes.

She does not want to see that happen to her family again.