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Dying with dignity

November 23, 2010

A 67-year-old widower has sued Germany in the European Court of Human Rights to overturn a ban on active assisted suicide. The man took his paraplegic wife to Switzerland because she wanted to end her life.

Hands clasped with person in hospital bed
Euthanasia is a sensitive issue in Germany due to the Nazi eraImage: AP

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg began hearing the case of Ulrich Koch vs. Germany on Tuesday. A court brief said the case concerned the German authorities' refusal to grant his late wife authorization to acquire a lethal dose of medication enabling her to commit voluntary, assisted suicide.

After falling in front of her house in 2002, Koch's wife was paralyzed from the neck down and required artificial ventilation and constant care from nursing staff.

Koch said his wife thereafter "suffered from terrible spasms" and even had trouble "sitting in a wheelchair."

Because she was paralyzed, she appealed for active help to end her life. In November, 2004, she made a request to Germany's Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices to grant her authorization to obtain the medication necessary to commit suicide, but the institute refused, arguing that her wish contravened the German Narcotics Act.

European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France
The European Court could force Germany to change the lawImage: AP

Couple forced to go abroad

The couple appealed the decision, and in the meantime went ahead with their own plans to let the woman die outside of Germany.

On February 12, 2005, she committed suicide in Switzerland, assisted by the organization, Dignitas, which helps people seeking a dignified way to die.

Koch's posthumous legal challenge in Germany on behalf of his wife was dismissed by two courts, including the Federal Constitutional Court in November 2008. Later, in 2010, another German court did rule that "passive" assisted suicide was legal.

This essentially means that in Germany voluntary starvation or dying of thirst on your own is legal, but any active assistance from others is not.

The European Court of Human Rights must now decide whether the German law banning "active" assisted suicide infringes on a person's right to privacy and a dignified death, as stipulated by Article 8 of the German constitution.

If the court rules in the plaintiff's favor, it could have far-reaching consequences for the growing tide of support across Europe for assisted suicides.

Author: Gregg Benzow
Editor: Nancy Isenson