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China: Case of Assisted Suicide Stirs Euthanasia Debate

(Aug. 17, 2011) In May 2011, the People's Court of Longnan County, in China's Jiangxi Province, sentenced Zhong Yichun, an elderly farmer, to two years' imprisonment for assisting his friend Zeng Qianxiang to commit suicide. Zhong was convicted of criminal negligence resulting in another person's death. (Farmer Jailed for Assisting Suicide Triggers Controversy, XINHUA (Aug. 15, 2011),

According to China's Xinhua News Agency, Zeng was mentally ill and had repeatedly asked Zhong to help him commit suicide. In October 2010, Zeng overdosed on sleeping pills and lay down in a hole in the ground; as part of an agreement he had made with Zhong, Zhong buried him after calling out to him 15 minutes later to make sure that Zeng was dead. However, based on an autopsy report indicating that the death was from suffocation, not an overdose, the court found that Zhong failed to confirm Zeng's death before burying him, concluding that Zeng was still alive when Zhong buried him. Zhong appealed the court sentence, but the Intermediate People's Court in Ganzhou City rejected the appeal in August 2011. (Id.)

The case has given rise to renewed nation-wide debate on euthanasia, which is banned under current Chinese law; there is no provision permitting assisted suicide. The debate focuses on the question of whether to characterize Zhong's action as intentional homicide or as negligence. (Id.) Article 232 of the Criminal Code stipulates a punishment of from three to ten years of fixed-term imprisonment for intentional homicide “if the circumstances are relatively minor”; the penalty is at least ten years of imprisonment up to the death penalty in more serious circumstances. Under article 233, persons who cause another person's death through negligence are punishable on conviction with a prison sentence of from three to seven years; if the circumstances are relatively minor, the maximum sentence is not more than three years, except as otherwise specifically provided in the Code. (Criminal Law of the People's Republic of China, The National People's Congress of the People's Republic of China website (last visited Aug. 17, 2011).)

In the view of scholar Ma Xuesong of the Jiangxi Academy of Social Sciences, “[i]f euthanasia can be accepted by the general public, it is an advancement of both society and morality.” He pointed out there is a gap in the quality of medical services and legislation between China and those countries that have legalized euthanasia. (XINHUA, supra.) Yan Sanzhong, head of the Department of Law at Jiangxi Normal University, was quoted as saying that China should gradually move towards the legalization of euthanasia based on an analysis of the basic principles of the country's criminal law. He stated, “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.” (Id.)

The Xinhua article points out that most governments regard assisted suicide as a form of homicide, and that even in the Netherlands and Belgium, which have legalized euthanasia, technically it is still deemed homicide even if it cannot be prosecuted if the doctor meets certain legal conditions. In March 2011, euthanasia was legally allowed in India for the first time, when the country's Supreme Court ruled “passive euthanasia” may be offered by hospitals, under court supervision, to patients with terminal diseases. (Id.)

The debate over euthanasia in China is not new. In March 2007, while China's National People's Congress (NPC) was holding its annual session, a young woman suffering from muscular dystrophy submitted a proposal for euthanasia legislation to a television journalist, who broadcast her ideas. That proposal was not the first, according to a news report at the time; similar proposals had been made for the past 20 years, “but legislators said the time was not yet ripe.” (Ma Jun, China: Right to Die, SHANGHAI DAILY NEWS (Mar. 30, 2007).) In March 1994, for example, a group of NPC legislators proposed a law in support of legalizing euthanasia. (Eric Tsang, The Asian Way on Death, ETSANG.NET (last visited Aug. 17, 2011).)

There have also been physicians in China who have been willing to assist patients to die. In 1992, Zhang Zanning, a professor of medical law at Nanjing's Dongnan University, defended a physician who was charged with murdering a terminally ill cancer patient by administering a lethal injection; the physician was acquitted. (Ma Jun, supra.)