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German Ethics Council says no to organized suicide

December 19, 2014

The German Ethics Council says it in principle rejects medically assisted suicide in the case of terminally ill patients. But its recognition of some exceptions to this principle has caused contention.

Symbolbild Sterbehilfe
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Jensen

A majority of the members of Germany's Ethics Council rejects organized assisted suicide carried out with the help of doctors or other professionals, a statement issued on Friday said.

Such services should be banned "when they are designed for repeated use and occur in a public context, giving them the apparent status of social normality," the statment said.

However, although the council supported the view of the German Medical Association that helping a patient to die was not part of a doctor's duties, it said in exceptional circumstances a doctor's decision to assist in the suicide of a terminally ill person should be respected as part of a "confidential doctor-patient relationship" - even if the decision contradicted this principle.

This opinion goes against the position taken by a number of members of Germany's coalition government, who would like to see such cases subject to regulation to give doctors legal certainty. The Ethics Council said such regulation would create "permissible, normal cases" of assisted suicide.

Differing interpretations

Both sides in the debate saw the position taken in Friday's statement as supporting their view.

"In hopeless situations, terminally ill people must have the right to ask their doctor for help in committing suicide. It is up to the doctor's conscience whether to comply with this wish," Christian Democrat Bundestag vice president Peter Hintze and Social Democrat parliamentary party leader Carola Reimann told dpa news agency.

The chairman of the German Foundation for the Protection of Patients, Eugen Brysch, however, criticized this interpretation of the statement by the ethics body.

"Hintze and Reimann have twisted the recommendations of the Ethics Council in their favor," he said, saying that a majority of the council's members rejected the idea that a patient had a right to a doctor's assistance with suicide.

Upcoming debate

The German parliament is to debate a draft bill regarding the regulation of assisted suicide in February, and new legislation on the issue is to be passed later in the year.

As is the case with suicide itself, assisting someone to die is not a punishable offense in Germany, provided that this assistance only goes as far as giving a patient access to a medication that can cause death, without actually administering it.

However, German law currently prohibits commercial organizations offering assistance with suicide, such as Dignitas in Switzerland.

The Ethics Council, which includes legal experts, theologists and ethicists, has a purely advisory role and no legislative power.

tj/es (epd, dpa)