Both supporters and opponents of “death with dignity” were alike spurred by the case of an American woman who committed physician-assisted suicide this weekend, believing the case may ignite a shift in Japan’s long-standing tendency to shun the topic as a taboo.
Each group remains opposed to the other, but they both expressed belief Tuesday that the woman’s action and her self-confessed wobble at the eleventh hour strengthens their cases both for withholding medical treatment and for banning such action by law.
Brittany Maynard, aged 29 and suffering terminal brain cancer, took her own life Saturday by consuming lethal drugs prescribed by a doctor under Oregon state’s “Death with Dignity Act.”
Prior to her death Saturday, Maynard revealed she and her husband had moved to the state with the intention of taking advantage of the law there to die with help.
“In Japan, people tend to think of the topic of death with dignity as taboo and recoil from discussing it openly,” said Masao Shirai, a member of the Japan Society for Dying with Dignity.
A group of nonpartisan lawmakers has been pushing to legalize forms of assisted death for years, but there has been little public discussion on the subject, he said.
Shirai said he hopes the highly publicized death of Maynard will ignite a long-stalled nationwide debate over the issue, and at the same time clarify the differences in approach from country to country.
In Japan, “songenshi” (death with dignity) is largely taken to mean a terminally ill patient requesting a doctor to discontinue the use of life-prolonging medical treatment, including artificial respirators, dialysis and feeding tubes, Shirai’s society says.
Physician-assisted dying, as in Maynard’s case, would be a criminal offense in Japan.
Domestic debate on interventionist death has thus far centered strictly on whether to withhold life-prolonging medical procedures — far short of Oregon’s permitting doctors to prescribe lethal drugs or even, in some European countries, to provide lethal cocktails.
“I hope Maynard’s story will help to clarify how different death with dignity is from euthanasia in Japan, and hopefully make people more accepting of the notion of dying with dignity,” Shirai said.
Meanwhile, Masatoshi Oda, a representative of Co-net, a group of about 60 ventilator users who oppose legislation that would allow doctors to withhold medical treatment, says he hopes Maynard’s case will ignite public interest in the issue.
Shortly before Saturday, the day Maynard ended her life, she expressed mixed feelings about going through with the suicide.
Oda said this is encouraging, as it strengthens the argument against legalizing the withholding of medical treatment: As Maynard showed, even most determined patients may waver in their decision at the last minute.
“If death with dignity is made legal as the lawmakers wish, there is simply no turning back. You sign the form and years later you will automatically be denied life-prolonging treatment” even though patients may be struggling with second thoughts over their decision, he said.
“So I hope Maynard’s tale will trigger a more active debate” over the pros and cons of death with dignity, especially on the need to heed the patient’s voice right up until the last minute, he said.