To be human is to die one day. What I say may sound harsh. However, it is better to accept the truth rather than try to live in its shadow. Throughout the globe, politicians and folks have been brainstorming to develop ‘death with dignity’ protocols and make it a legal framework within which a terminally ill person can choose to reject the life-prolonging treatments to die with dignity in relative peace.

It has now been almost three years since the ‘well-dying’ bill has been passed in South Korea. About 800,000 people have registered under this program in South Korea by directing to forego life-prolonging treatments in case of terminal illness with a no recovery scenario. Above 80% of the total registrations in South Korea come from elderly residents (over 60 years of age). South Korea has been actively seeking to promote the well-dying bill in light of one of the highest suicide rates among the elderly in the developed world.

Conversations surrounding death are never easy. However, throughout our lives, we should try to come to terms regarding our ends and that of our loved ones. After all, the one who lives must die. In my view, the philosophy behind the death with dignity program stems from the stoic dictum of the dichotomy of control. Of course, we do not have any control over death in the conventional sense. However, under certain situations, when we do fall terminally ill with little to no chance of recovery, shouldn’t we have a choice to take control of our own lives?

The proponents of death with dignity often indicate that foregoing life expansion treatments help save the terminally ill patients from excruciating suffering and pain. One could even argue that the same goes for the caretakers and loved ones of such patients. Of course, our moral obligation is to hold onto our lives even when the going gets tough and try to recover through advanced medical treatments. Nevertheless, in the cases where it is impossible to recover, being sustained on mechanical life-expanding devices can be seen as non-virtuous, wherein you are trying to control the inevitable.

Under the South Korean death with dignity program, artificial respiration, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, anti-cancer drug administration, and hemodialysis have been categorized as the life-extension care systems. The person should be above 19 years of age at the time of registration to the program and can rescind his/her application at any given time.

Many elderly and even younger people often think about the meaninglessness of life under such terminal illness situations wherein you do not have any recovery chance. Thus the death with dignity program offers a much sought-after option to hold onto your peace and die, keeping your virtues intact. Several people also think of such a way to alleviate the suffering they may bestow on their children or caretakers during their end days.

The death with dignity program is a topic of intense debate in several countries as it should be. A person’s life and death is not a trivial topic. However, in the end, the individual should have a right to decide under such critical situations, and the loved ones should respect the ultimate decision. Having said that, I recommend having intensive discussions with your family and friends about such so that your decision to choose death with dignity does not come as a shock to them. After all, in usual cases, your family will be heavily involved during your last days at the hospital or home. As the stoics often say, meditate on death (both yours and those dear to you), come to terms with it, be prepared for it, and live your life to the fullest so that even if you die tomorrow, there will be no regrets as you did your best to make meaning out of the life you were born in.

See the version published in ‘The Korea Times’ →

Doctoral candidate at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (Air Quality and Materials Application Lab), Hanyang University, Seoul, South Korea