A cancer-stricken woman fighting a right-to-die battle against her parents won the backing of an appellate court Friday, which ruled that the 28-year-old bank manager from New York City who is paralyzed as a result of a brain tumor may decide her own fate.
The emotional case has been playing out in Grace SungEun Lee’s room at North Shore University Hospital on Long Island, and on a Facebook page, Save Grace SungEun Lee, created by those who sided with family members desperate to keep Lee on life support. As word of the appellate court’s decision spread Friday, the page was swarmed with comments from people arguing for and against it, underscoring the passionate debate that surrounds the issue of individuals’ rights to choose death over terminal illness.
Only two states, Oregon and Washington, permit people with terminal illnesses to request prescription medication to bring about death. But in all states, mentally competent adults may decide for themselves if they wish to go on with life-prolonging treatments even in the face of terminal illness.
That’s the situation Lee faced when she became paralyzed from the neck down in September as a result of a brain tumor and was given a few months to live. Lee has been on a ventilator since September, and her doctors at North Shore say she has clearly expressed a desire to be removed from life support to end the suffering.
Lee’s parents insist she is depressed and heavily medicated and in no position to make such a decision. The deeply religious couple also say that hastening death would be “a sin.”
“I cannot imagine my daughter is suicidal,” her father, Man Ho Lee, a minister at Antioch Missionary Church in the New York City borough of Queens, said at a news conference before the court’s ruling.
“I believe when someone sets a time and date to die, that is considered a suicide and a sin,” he said, speaking through a translator as Lee’s mother, Jin Ah Lee, wept. “It is very important for us to let doctors know … they have no right to take somebody's life.”
Lee added that, despite his daughter’s prognosis, he believes “she can win this battle.”
Jeffrey Forchelli, a lawyer representing the family, said that a hearing last week on the family’s request to extend a temporary restraining order keeping Lee on life support was “just a short hearing that really didn’t cover all the issues.” He had said a more comprehensive hearing was needed. The family had hoped to keep the order in place and be put in charge of their daughter's medical care.
The bottom line, Forchelli insisted, is that the parents “know best what their daughter thinks” and are convinced she wants to keep living.
On Wednesday, the family bolstered its argument by posting to YouTube a video they said shows Lee expressing to a cousin her desire to be moved into a nursing home and put under her parents' care. The video shows Lee, unmoving in a hospital bed and a tube in her throat, listening as a man leans in close and asks if she is willing to sign over her medical proxy to her father.
Lee cannot speak but moves her mouth, saying "yes," according to the cousin.
Newsday reported Friday that a spokesman for North Shore, Terry Lynam, was "in no rush" to take action. "Her attorney will be meeting with her to determine what her wishes are, and the hospital will abide by whatever she wants to do," Lynam said, according to Newsday.
The case is reminiscent of the long battle that pitted the husband of a Florida woman, Terry Schiavo, against Schiavo's parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, after Schiavo collapsed and fell into a coma in 1990. But unlike Lee, who is fully conscious and, according to her lawyers and doctors, fully competent, Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state as her parents fought to keep her on life support.
Schiavo's husband, Michael, eventually prevailed in a court battle that lasted from 1998 until 2005. A judge ordered his wife's feeding tube removed in March 2005, and she died later in the month.
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