03/08/2016, 17.25
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‘Death with dignity’ debate troubling Japan, as it opens the door to euthanasia

Health spending now stands at US$ 350 billion, one third for people over 75. With a low birth rate , the country’s population shrank for the first time last year. The issue is front and centre on TV, in newspapers and parliament. For one pro-life group, it would lead to “genetic selection”.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – Aging and childless, Japanese society is starting to reflect on legalising ‘death with dignity,’ a practice meant to cut medical costs of patients in a vegetative state but one that could lead to euthanasia.

TV channels, newspapers, and parliament have waded into this controversial debate with various participants coming out against or in favour.

As a concept, ‘death with dignity’ emerged in the 1970s, and should not be confused with euthanasia.

It is generally defined as "the act of letting a terminally ill or a patient in a persistent vegetative state die by withdrawing life-sustaining treatment on request in the form of a living will."

Advocates of this practice call it "natural death" or "humane death". Detractors argue that it opens the door to euthanasia.

Shoji Nakanishi, 72, heads the non-profit Human Care Association. He is wheel-chair-bound after a spinal cord injury at age 21. At the time, he was told he had just three months to live.

Fifty-one years later, he said, "They say people want to die in a dignified way . . . but because of the cost, they want people to have 'living wills' and reduce medical expenses”. In his view, "If such a law is passed, it could lead to euthanasia”.

For his and other groups such talk simply confirms what they fear - public financial woes are driving the push for legislation that could be a first step towards legalising euthanasia of those society deems a burden.

In 2014, Japan’s total health care spending topped 40 trillion yen (0 billion) for the first time. Spending on those aged 75 and over exceeded a third of the total, a percentage set to grow as the population ages.

This is happening at a time when the Japanese population is actually shrinking.

For the first time since the authorities began collecting census data in 1920, the latest in time (2015) confirmed a population contraction of 947 000 since 2010. Last year, Japan’s population was 127.1 million down from 128.1 million in 2010.

The net result has been that Japan ranks as the oldest nation in the world. Some 33,840,000 Japanese are over 65; that is 26.7 per cent of the total.

For the first time the number of Japanese over 80 exceeds 10 million. In fact, about 10.2 million people (or 7.9 per cent of the total population) is over 81. Among women, one in ten is over 80.

The collapsing birth rate is now a political issue the government has to tackle. “We cannot say clearly that it is a problem of cost, but it is a problem,” said Toshiharu Furukawa, head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's health, welfare and labour panel.

For his part, Finance Minister Taro Aso in 2013 said the ailing elderly should be allowed to “hurry up and die” and linked the issue to the high cost of medical care. In doing so, he caused an outcry.

For various analysts, legislation on the right to “die with dignity” is unlikely to be submitted before July. Still, in an editorial, The Japan Times said this was the path to follow.

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