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Germany

When Life Becomes Worse Than Death

In a move which has caused considerable consternation among politicians and the church, the Swiss organization for assisted suicide, Dignitas, has founded a subsidiary in Germany.

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Assisted-suicide requires a caring and helping hand

The numbers, though not particularly high, are noteworthy.

Since Ludwig A Minelli founded Dignitas in 1998, the Swiss assisted-suicide organization has helped 453 people to their deaths. More than half of those, according to the organization, come from Germany. The fact was reason enough for Minelli to start up an office in Hanover through which he hopes to influence Germany's assisted-suicide debate.

Intensivstation

Not every end is dignified

"It's about having a group here, that involves itself in the assisted-suicide debate," said Minelli upon announcing the opening of the office last week. "We want to give it a push."

At the moment, German law doesn't punish doctors who help their patients die. But courts have investigated neglectful care that has led to the deaths of critically-ill patients. In Switzerland, organizations like Dignitas, which means "dignity" in Latin, can not only counsel people who want to end their lives, but are able to give them the deadly medicinal cocktail -- provided by a doctor -- to carry out their wish. The cost? More than 3,100 Swiss francs ($2,400).

Fierce oppositio n

Germany hasn't exactly rolled out the welcome mat. On Wednesday, the mass daily Bild ran a photo of the organization's new Hanover offices under the headline "Here is where they sell death".

The Justice Minister of Lower Saxony, Elisabeth Hiester-Neumann, responded to the news this week by announcing that she is looking into ways of outlawing assisted-suicide, a practice which is generally tolerated by law, although not openly discussed. "The organized promotion of suicide cannot be tolerated," Hiester-Neumann said. The ministry also said they planned to have the building observed by police.

Bischöfin mit Nonnen in Deutschland

Bishop Margot Kässmann with nuns

The Bishop of Hanover, Margot Kässmann, shared the justice ministry's concerns, calling Dignitas' move "problematic", and adding that there should be no such thing as a "quick and effective death," and that death should be further integrated into society.

Germany's Protestant and Catholic churches are, alongside conservative politicians, the two fiercest opponents of a system that allows people to choose death over life, said Susanne Dehmel, of the German Society for Dying in Dignity (DGHS).

"They say God created life and only he can take it, but the wider population doesn't go along with that," she said. "They are more of the opinion that they should treat life as a gift, which also means they should be able to put an end to it if they want to."

Worst case sce n ario

Ärzte-Visite im Krankenhaus

All-round care and pain relief can remove the will to die

Thomas Schindler, Managing Director of the German Association of Palliative Medicine offers a middle way.

"Our experience tells us that good care makes the process of dying much more bearable," he said. "Premature death is irreversible, so we don't support that, but neither do we extend suffering, and palliative medicine often provides adequate alleviation."

Menschen beten für das Leben von Terri Schiavo

Should it be a Christian decision?

But, as Dignitas records show, that's just not enough for some people. The DGHS says Germany should embrace all the options and introduce an all-encompassing law which would clearly provide for all eventualities, and make assisted-suicide a possible last resort for those who have tried or rejected the wide range of other options.

"People should not have to jump under a train or leap from the seventh floor in order to take their lives," she said. "Although palliative medicine can be a huge help for many people, and often removes the will to die, there are still those patients for whom it doesn't work, and these people have to be given the chance to die legally."

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