06/24/2009, 00.00
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Doctors pull life support but comatose woman continues to breathe on her own

More than 30 hours following the removal of life support 77-year-old Kim continues to breathe on her own. Doctors say her conditions are stable and she is living longer than expected. The debate over ‘death with dignity’ heats up in the country. Catholic scholar says decision is based on wrong interpretation of court ruling.

Seoul (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A 77-year-old woman who has been in a deep coma since February of last year is still breathing on her own after medical staff at Seoul’s Yonsei Severance Hospital removed life support on Tuesday. The operation was carried out at 10.24 yesterday in the presence of her family.

The patient, whose name is Kim Ok-kyung, fell into a coma after suffering post-surgery cerebral damage early last year. The doctors who are caring for her said that she is living longer as expected and continues to breathe on her own on the second day since support was switched off. Her conditions remain “stable”.

The right to die with dignity continues to be a heated topic of debate in the country. Kim’s case is the first one involving ‘death with dignity’ or ‘passive euthanasia’.

After a year of court battles between the patient's family and the hospital, the Supreme Court on 21 May recognised the family’s right to stop life support, even though the hospital did not want to.

South Korea’s Supreme Court said that because the patient “has entered the irrevocable death stage where revival is impossible, important life functions have been lost and death is imminent without the help of a respirator.”

The latest turn of events appears to suggest otherwise at least insofar as the judges’ motivations.

“The hospital will continue to care for her as long as she is breathing,” said Lee Jae-hyuk, a spokesman for Yonsei Hospital. “We have found no unusual symptoms." He added: “We, of course, respect the court ruling, but we are doing our best to keep her alive.”

“The hospital believed that Kim was not about to die. That's why she is still alive," another hospital official said.

In the past few weeks the South Korean Catholic Church has expressed its concerns with regards to the comatose woman, saying that in her case there was a wrong interpretation of the court’s ruling.

“What the court ordered was to end the meaningless medical treatment for the sake of prolonging life, not to make her die,” said Prof Lee Dong-ik of Catholic University of Korea.

“The social debate should focus on 'natural' death with dignity, not on euthanasia which means intentional death.”

Joi Hun-jeong, a spokesman for the Korean Medical Association (KMA), said the association is working on its own guideline.

“The KMA has convened a task force to set a guideline on death with dignity. A final draft will be prepared around September.”

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