A new study says most Germans are in favor of legally assisted suicide. But in its own report, a group caring for the terminally ill says Germans would see voluntary suicide differently if they had a real choice.
Do Germans want help to die or help to live?
Last month, the Swiss organisation for assisted suicide, Dignitas, founded a branch in Germany, fueling an already controversial debate over whether or not Germans should be allowed to choose when to die.
Now, a study commissioned by Germany's Stern news magazine following the Dignitas debut, reveals that 74 percent of Germans believe doctors caring for terminally ill patients should be allowed to put an end to their suffering by being given the authority to administer lethal injections.
A mere 20 percent of those questioned voiced opposition to the practice, while six percent were undecided. The study, which reflects a growing fear among the German population about dying in anguish, comes amidst reports of poor conditions in nursing homes across the country.
What goes on in a hospice?
But the German Hospice Foundation has responded to the results of the survey with skepticism, saying that people don't know enough about the alternatives available to them.
A counter survey conducted by the Emnid research group and commissioned by the foundation which cares for terminally ill patients in homes all over Germany, revealed that only three out of 100 Germans know what "palliative care" is, and only one in five are familiar with hospice practices.
The president of the organization, Eugen Brysch said a greater knowledge was enough to change people's perceptions.
"In our study we confronted people with existing alternatives of dying in caring circumstances. We explained to them the possibilities of pain-killing medicine and individual care in the process of dying. A majority of people then expressed the will to live a self-determined life until the end and opted against assisted suicide,“ Brysch said.
Presenting interviewees, as it did, with greater information about the benefits of all-round care, the Emnid survey produced very different results. Some 56 percent of Germans said they would prefer to be cared for in a hospice than resort to assisted suicide.
Care is not all about medication
But therein lies a problem. As Brysch was forced to acknowledge, Germany is something of a developing nation when it comes to palliative care provisions. He conceded that presently a mere two percent of some 800,000 people who die in Germany every year, have access to individual care while dying.
His mission is to change that. He is vehemently opposed to the presence of Dignitas in Germany, and has urged politicians not to relax the legislation under which euthanasia is currently outlawed.
"The real scandal is that politicians who fail to do anything about the terrible conditions in our nursing homes are allowing organizations like Dignitas to work in this country. They exploit popular fears of dying in inhumane circumstances in an effort to soften stringent laws here,“ Brysch said.
Boosting palliative care
With such contradictory results from the two studies, which were conducted within a matter of weeks of each other, it is hard to clearly establish what Germans really want.
But the effect of the publications has been to heat the debate to such an extent, that the government has pledged a 250 million euro ($300 million) cash injection into care for the terminally ill. The money is intended to facilitate the creation of some 330 palliative teams to care for patients at home, in nursing homes and hospices.
Health Minister, Ulla Schmidt
Health Minister, Ulla Schmidt, said that one in 10 terminally ill people needed such care in order to achieve the ultimate aim of treating those in need so well that they never come up against a wish to die.