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"Japan Christians query guidelines on halting lives of terminally ill," Ecumenical News International, 5 November 2007

    Ecumenical News International
    Daily News Service
    05 November 2007

    Japan Christians query guidelines on halting lives of terminally ill
    ENI-07-0850

    By Hisashi Yukimoto
    Tokyo, 2 November (ENI)--Japanese Christian ethicists have criticised new guidelines by the Japanese Association of Acute Medicine that allow doctors to halt measures for prolonging the lives of terminally ill patients, asserting they are aimed at preventing medical lawsuits from being filed.

    "The logic is that if they follow the process towards halting measures for prolonging lives according to this [guideline], they will be justified and won't be sued for illegal acts and that they have supported death with dignity as a mercy killing," the Rev. Masakatsu Seki, an Anglican professor emeritus of Christian life ethics at St. Paul's University in Tokyo, which is also known as Rikkyo, told Ecumenical News International.

    Seki has written on life ethics and is the former principal of the Central Theological College in Tokyo, and currently teaches Christian ethics at St. Luke's College of Nursing in the Japanese capital.

    The Japanese Association of Acute Medicine issued a statement on 15 October approving the practice of halting measures for the prolonging of life under certain circumstances.

    Although current Japanese law is not clear about euthanasia, some judges consider that it is acceptable when it is requested by a terminally-ill patient, who can no longer respond to treatment.

    The statement by the medical association is seen as indicating that doctors could halt measures to prolong life as long as a patient is supported by their family and has expressed his or her wishes in writing. If the patient's wishes are not known and the family is unable to decide, a medical team can make the decision, according to some interpretations of the guidelines.

    Reports surfaced in March 2006 of a hospital in Imizu that was disconnecting the respirators of patients between the ages of 50 and 90. Hospital officials were reported to have said that in all cases the family consented, but the consent of the patient was not always obtained. In 1998, a doctor from Yokohama had practised euthanasia on a comatose man with a lethal injection and was sentenced in 2005 to three years in prison.

    The Japan Times newspaper reported on 31 July 2006 that the Yodogawa Christian Hospital in Osaka had, with the consent of the parents, discontinued efforts to prolong the lives of eight babies between 1999 and 2005. This was after doctors determined that the newly born babies would have died within a period of one to two hours.

    The new guidelines, most of which have been accepted by the Japan Association for Acute Medicine, will be finalised in November. They state: "When a patient's will is not clear, the family can surmise his or her wish, and [the doctors] can halt measures at the behest of the family."

    Toru Aruga, professor of acute medicine at Showa University in Tokyo, who chairs the association's special committee on terminal medicine was quoted by the Japanese daily newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, on 16 October as saying, "There have been circumstances that incur judicial interventions, when treatments for prolonging lives are stopped. But I think that we cannot be legally blamed if we follow the guidelines."

    The Rev. Katsuhiro Kohara, professor of comparative religious ethics and Christian thought at Doshisha University in Kyoto, told ENI, "I feel that the guidelines give a higher priority to the will of the family than to the will of the patient in response to the measures to prolong terminal lives." He said, "In short, there remains a strong spiritual root in Japan that family ethics has priority over individual ethics."

    Professor emeritus Seki said, "There is no clear statement on what death with dignity is [in the guidelines]." He told ENI, "It is very dangerous to allow death 'with dignity' by stopping medical acts without clarifying what constitutes 'death with dignity' in this case." [640 words]

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