Chinese City Passes ‘Right to Die’ Protection Against ‘Excessive Live-Saving’

A nurse checks the dripping speed for a patient at a hospital in Qianxi City, southwest China's Guizhou Province, May 12, 2022. The number of registered nurses in China has grown with an average annual rate of 8 percent over the past 10 years, reaching 5.02 million at the end …
Fan Hui/Xinhua via Getty Images

Southern China’s Shenzhen city, which is considered a special economic zone by China’s central government, recently became the first community in China to pass a regulation protecting a person’s “right to die,” the Global Times reported on Tuesday, noting that the novel legislation aims to help terminally ill patients refuse “excessive life-saving treatment.”

“According to the revised medical regulations of Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, if a patient doesn’t want medical staff to ‘perform unnecessary resuscitation,’ the hospital should respect that wish and allow the patient to die peacefully,” China’s state-run Global Times relayed on July 5.

Citing unnamed “experts” on end-of-life protocol, the Chinese Communist Party-controlled newspaper claimed that Shenzhen’s new “right to die” regulation “is intended for palliative care patients only, and by definition, this kind of care is used at the end of an incurable illness, when the patient’s condition is irreversible even with the use of the most advanced modern medicine available.”

Many countries worldwide, including several Western nations, currently allow people to sign “do-not-resuscitate (DNR)” documents that essentially grant the signee the right to refuse life-saving treatments in advance should they enter a terminally ill state in the future.

The Global Times described Shenzhen’s new “right to die” regulation as a type of “DNR” on Tuesday, noting that the agreement “is a document that a person signs in advance, while conscious and aware, specifying what kind of medical care he or she wants or does not want at the end of an incurable illness.”

“Shenzhen’s ‘right to die’ legislation has turned people’s abstract rights enshrined in Article 130 and Article 1002 of China’s Civil Code into a specific embodiment,” Liu Ruishuang, a deputy director of the Department of Medical Ethics and Law of the School of Health Humanity at Beijing’s Peking University, told the Global Times on July 5.

“[B]y allowing critically ill patients to decide whether to have life-extending treatments, the legislation safeguards their right of self-determination and dignity of life,” Liu continued.

“[U]nlike euthanasia, in which the patients may be ‘deprived’ of life by other people such as relatives or friends, it is the patient himself who makes the decision whether to continue medical treatment in the case of this legislation,” she opined.

Liu acknowledged that Shenzhen’s new “right to die” legislation “requires more detailed and specific rules for practical implementation.”

“For instance, how does one define ‘the final stage of a critically ill patient’s life’? Maybe we can have medical experts list the circumstances under which patients can refuse life-extending treatment,” she suggested.

The New Yorker‘s Jiayang Fan highlighted in March 2020 that China’s state-run hospitals generally lack “consistent palliative care.” She interviewed Song Jianguo, a former director of a respiratory department at a hospital in Taiyuan, which is the capital and largest city of northern China’s Shanxi province.

“Song, who was in his early sixties, had just retired, after having received a diagnosis of Stage IV stomach cancer,” Fan noted.

Relaying Song’s assessment of end-of-life care in China, Fan wrote:

“It’s a subject we should talk about more openly in this country,” he said, pointing out that, even in a hospital of this scale [in Taiyuan], there was no consistent palliative care. Again, distorted incentives were part of the problem: doctors earned far less for prescribing pain medication than for ordering chemotherapy or surgery. […]

He worried deepening distrust of doctors was undermining end-of-life discussions: “It’s impossible when the patient or the patient’s family is thinking at every turn, Oh, is the doctor saying there’s nothing we can do because that’s really the case or because he doesn’t think he’ll earn enough to be worth his effort?”

[…] “Everyone should know what’s coming. When that day comes, we have to know the difference between giving up and letting go.”

Taiyuan lies roughly 300 miles southwest of Beijing, China’s northern national capital. Taiyuan is located about 1,200 miles north of Shenzhen, which is a southern metropolis bridging China and Hong Kong. Shenzhen has an estimated population of 12.6 million, meaning its new “right to die” legislation will potentially impact a large number of people.

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