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David Wertime

Should China Legalize Euthanasia?

On May 16, 2011, Mr. Deng Mingjian helped his mother die. According to the 41-year-old’s sworn testimony, his mother Li Mou, who had been paralyzed and lain under his care for 18 years, felt she had become a burden to her family. Deng’s testimony states his mother asked him to buy a bottle of pesticide so she could end her own life. He says he complied, brought the bottle to his mother, and she lifted it up and drank from it. Deng was arrested for murder, and his case was heard in Panyu, Guangzhou Province in January.

The court will soon announce its verdict. Deng will almost certainly be found guilty, but he has asked the court to commute his sentence given the circumstances. If Deng’s punishment is commuted, this widely-watched case could set an (informal) precedent for tolerance of euthanasia in China. It may even lead to new legislation.

With hundreds of thousands of comments on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, netizens have made passionate arguments for and against legalizing euthanasia. About half of commenters felt euthanasia should be legalized–or at least, its legal status should be immediately clarified–especially given deficiencies in China’s current health care system. @39du忧伤 described how “in farming villages, old people develop cancer in their late years, and keeping them in the hospital for long periods to give them analgesics and other medicines is not realistic. They scream in pain every day.” @风行运 added, “After a commoner spends their life in labor contributing to their country, when they get old they should have a social guarantee to sustain them in their late years. Not everyone is a public official with a munificent income.”

The fraying of China’s social safety net is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before China’s economic liberalization began in earnest in 1979, the country had a system of “barefoot doctors” who could provide basic medical care to even the poorest villagers free of charge. Ironically, as China grew richer, that system vanished. Coupled with rising hospital costs, this has left some villagers with terminal illnesses to face punishing hospital fees. It’s no wonder that Chinese citizens are among the world’s biggest savers; their bank account may be all that stands between them and calamity. Indeed, @宅鱼大人 described how “one of my friend’s fathers had serious diabetes and was facing death. He could only use a respirator, the hospital was only looking at how much money was left in his account–running out of money was tantamount to giving up medical care.”

Others felt that euthanasia should be legalized simply because it is a right. Many felt it should be allowed to avoid “endless suffering.” Echoing a common refrain, @毛毛牛mmn wrote, “When living is worse than dying, one has the right to choose death.” @rosecat1014 added, “The will of the sick person should be respected. Ultimately, only the sick person knows his own pain.” Others felt citizens should have control over their own bodies in any situation. SJM风之语@ wrote, “If the right to life is something bestowed on us by God or other deities, then none of us have a right to deprive [others] of it; if [the right to life] is inherent, the person enjoying it has the right to decide what direction to go without a ruler constraining them.” @秋叶一阵风 simply asked, “If we lack even the right to seek death, what else do we have?

Support for legalizing euthanasia is by no means unanimous. Instead of the religious counter-arguments to euthanasia often found in the United States, China’s netizens focused on Deng’s mistakes as a son. @梦迷人L argued, “As a son you should give your mother motivation to keep living.” @李荷西 wrote that because of her paralysis, “the mother in fact was like the child, and when the child had the wrong notion it would have been best to use love to correct them … At the moment [Deng] gave his mother that pesticide, he was no longer a good son.” @Ellen熙 aptly reflected the visceral aversion some had to the son’s actions, writing, “All normal people with filial hearts are unwilling to see their mother die, even more if they are sending their own mother to heaven! What he really wanted in his heart was for his mother to die so there was one less burden in his life.”

The controversy surrounding Deng’s case, and euthanasia in general, illustrates the difficulty of legal reform in China. Lawyers in China will sometimes say that “law has no emotion.” Most non-lawyers think differently, but seeking “humanity” in a law constitutes a Rorchach test in which observers see what confirms their views. Some felt the most “humane” approach was to allow those suffering to die. @张峰Bobby wrote, “Forbidding euthanasia does not mean that a country’s law is humane; people have the right to choose a dignified death.” But @唯夕Devil implied that legalizing euthanasia would confirm to a troubling pattern in China: “Sometimes I feel that law shows its power before those who are weak, but is humane before those who are strong…just sometimes.”

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.
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  • http://seeingredinchina.com/ Tom

    Really great article on this interesting topic, but one small correction should be made: the barefoot doctor program only offered the most basic forms of treatment. While the program has been stopped, rural clinics achieve the same limited results. The discussion is resulting from rapidly increasing hospital costs and that the Chinese social security system really only covers the most basic illnesses.

    • Dwertime

      Tom, thanks for reading, and for your comment. We’ve made a tweak to the article to reflect this. 

  • http://seeingredinchina.com/ Tom

    Really great article on this interesting topic, but one small correction should be made: the barefoot doctor program only offered the most basic forms of treatment. While the program has been stopped, rural clinics achieve the same limited results. The discussion is resulting from rapidly increasing hospital costs and that the Chinese social security system really only covers the most basic illnesses.

    • Dwertime

      Tom, thanks for reading, and for your comment. We’ve made a tweak to the article to reflect this.