YINCHUAN, CHINA — Confined to a rusty wheelchair and unable to control her muscles below her neck, Li Yan seemed destined for nothing more than a short life of pain and hopelessness.
Instead, the 29-year-old with muscular dystrophy has been catapulted into the center of an ethical debate. Li, fearing that her disease eventually will leave her in a helpless state, used her blog in March to ask the National People's Congress to legalize her right to die.
"I don't want to live with my brothers and sisters-in-law after my parents' death, let alone go to an orphanage or welfare institute," wrote Li, a rosy-cheeked woman with plump lips who can't keep from breaking into a smile even when discussing her most morbid wishes.
"I'd be away from heaven and life would be worse than death for me," she wrote, addressing the congress during its annual two-week meeting in Beijing. "So I would like to apply for euthanasia when I'm still able to sit and talk."
The central government has been guarded, hinting in the state media that China wasn't ready to join the few nations that have legalized euthanasia. But in a country where death shadows the underclass in myriad ways -- from coal mine explosions and sickening pollution to earthquakes and floods -- many people appear to view euthanasia as an act of mercy.
There is no right-to-life movement here like the one that sought to keep brain-damaged Terri Schiavo alive two years ago in Florida. In China, the one-child policy has begotten institutionalized abortion. Capital punishment is common and swift.
"China's atheism education, people's practical mind-set and poverty all add up to a willingness to accept euthanasia," said Zhang Zanning, a professor of medical law at Dongnan University in Nanjing. "I think the supporting rate for euthanasia is very high. In terms of public opinion, now is a good time for legislation."
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Li, the daughter of a fertilizer factory worker in this industrial corner of northwestern China, had no idea what the rest of the country thought about euthanasia four years ago when her parents borrowed about $500 -- the equivalent of three months' wages -- to buy her a computer to get online. Li taught herself to type by holding a chopstick in her mouth. In early March, she copied her plea to the National People's Congress and pasted it to a message board belonging to a prominent national television reporter.
Within four days, her story had fanned out nationwide. Four weeks later, 90,000 hits had been recorded on Li's blog, many people leaving words of encouragement and support for her right to take her own life.
"I understand and support you!" wrote a poster named Caihong. "It has nothing to do with courage, but has to do with dignity! I hope everyone can have a dignified life and death!"
There are no definitive national surveys of popular sentiment on the issue, only snippets like Li's blog. More than 90% of 5,456 people in a poll organized by www.sina.com.cn in March supported Li's right to die.
Zhang, who successfully defended a doctor in 1992 who was charged with murdering a cancer patient by lethal injection, conducted a poll of 463 people in 1998. He said 448 respondents deemed euthanasia humane.
Li's appeal has made her a media star. On a recent day, a crew from state-run network CCTV filmed a foreign journalist interviewing Li in her bedroom. The cramped space was decorated with a heart-shaped mirror. Along the window was a queen bed Li shared with her mother, Song Fengying.
The 60-year-old matriarch turns her daughter's body at least 10 times a night to ease the discomfort of staying in one position.
"If I can't sleep, my mother can't, either," said Li, sitting on her plaid-cushioned wheelchair with a red blanket covering her legs. "I explain to people, imagine lying down or sitting stiff for two hours without any movement no matter how uncomfortable it feels. It becomes so painful. Like having a mosquito on your finger and you can't chase it away."
Moments later, Li shouted, "Ma! Move my legs."
Song squatted down and lifted the blanket off her daughter. She adjusted Li's legs just a few inches and clasped her daughter's hands together on her lap. She tucked the blanket back under Li's feet before shuffling away.
Song said it was up to her daughter to decide what she wanted for her future. But it isn't easy for her to accept Li's quest.
"When I take my daughter outside, neighbors and friends say, 'Your daughter's still alive? What will your daughter do after you die?' " Song said.
"I just say, 'We'll see.' I don't think so far ahead. I live day to day. It makes me too sad to think about the future. I know it saddens my daughter to think about it too. She has to suffer this pain. As parents, we couldn't do our job. We couldn't cure her."
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