Man jailed for assisting suicide triggers controversy

Updated: 2011-08-15 06:38


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NANCHANG - Zhong Yichun, an elderly farmer from East China's Jiangxi province, never expected that helping his friend Zeng Qingxiang to commit suicide would bring him a two-year prison sentence.

Zhong buried Zeng last October as part of an agreement they made regarding Zeng's suicide. Zeng overdosed on sleeping pills and laid in a hole in the ground; Zhong called out to him 15 minutes later to ensure that he was dead before burying him.

A police investigation showed that Zeng suffered from a mental illness and had begged Zhong to help him commit suicide several times.

In May of this year, the Longnan County People's Court sentenced Zhong to two years in prison after convicting him of criminal negligence resulting in the death of another person.

Zhong did not confirm Zeng was dead before burying, the court found. An autopsy report showed that Zeng died from suffocation instead of from an overdose of sleeping pills, which meant that he was still alive when he was buried.

Zhong insisted on his innocence and appealed the sentence. However, the Intermediate People's Court in the city of Ganzhou rejected his appeal earlier this month.

The case has aroused a nationwide discussion on euthanasia. In China, euthanasia is prohibited by law. In Zhong's case, it didn't matter whether or not he had a criminal motive to kill Zeng, as his legal punishment would've been doled out regardless of his intent.

However, the center of the debate revolves around the definition of Zhong's behavior - was it a case of intentional homicide, or simple negligence?

Zhong's case reflects one of the key concerns regarding euthanasia shared around the world.

Governments in the Netherlands, Belgium and some states in the United States have legalized assisted suicide. However, most governments regard it as a form of criminal homicide.

Even in the Netherlands and Belgium, it is still technically considered to be homicide, although it is not prosecutable if the doctor meets certain legal conditions.

The Supreme Court of India ruled in March that hospitals may offer "passive euthanasia" to patients with terminal diseases under the supervision of courts. The ruling marked the first time for euthanasia to be legally permitted in India.

"If euthanasia can be accepted by the general public, it is an advancement of both society and morality," said Ma Xuesong, a scholar from the Jiangxi Academy of Social Sciences.

Ma said the gap between China and places that legalized euthanasia lies in the quality of medical service and legislation.

Euthanasia, a very complicated issue that involves many factors such as jurisprudence, ethics and medical technology, is difficult to handle in practice.

Some experts argue that China is not prepared or mature enough to legalize euthanasia.

Lin Cunbao, chief partner of the Baohui law firm in Guangdong, said those who are against euthanasia hold the view that the right to life is above other considerations.

Yan Sanzhong, director of the Department of Law at Jiangxi Normal University, said China should analyze the basic principles of its criminal law and take steps to gradually promote the legalization of euthanasia.

"China should first accumulate judicial experience in handling cases regarding euthanasia. The Supreme Court can then come up with judicial interpretations and guidance and finally legalize euthanasia at the proper time," said Yang.