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Live and let die?

Heiner Kiesel /ai
August 8, 2012

Debate heats up in Germany as politicians propose a bill that would update the country's laws on euthanasia. Germany is currently in the middle of Europe's extremes on the issue, and Germans themselves are also divided.

A carer holds the hand of a very elderly person, lying in a hospital bed
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Many in Germany are unhappy with current euthanasia legislation, according to a study conducted by pollsters Emnid. The poll found that almost 50 percent of Germans say they want professionals to be able to help people who wish to die.

But that's not what Berlin wants. The Justice Ministry has warned in a paper of a scenario where professional companies would be permitted to offer assistance in "a quick and efficient form of suicide." Means in which companies could do this would be offering medication or a room for the suicide to take place. Under a planned bill though, this though would be punished by a fine or a prison sentence.

The planned law has caused controversy because people close to the patient, including relatives, friends and long-time doctors and caregivers, would be exempt from punishment. Many doctors, church representatives and conservative politicians are highly critical of the planned bill. And there's disagreement even within the ranks of the governing coalition.

Active euthanasia though would not be affected by the law; killing patients even if they request it, will remain illegal. It is currently legal in Germany to give life-shortening, but not lethal, drugs to a patient who has provided written order. German medical professionals are also required to respect a patient's written order not to receive advanced life-saving medical procedures. German law on the issue is therefore roughly in the middle of legislation found in other European countries.

Room for assisted suicide in Switzerland. Photo: dpa/Gaetan Bally
A room for assisted suicide in Switzerland. The service is offered to Swiss as well as foreign nationalsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Tolerant Netherlands

The Netherlands goes the farthest in it legislation. The country enacted a law permitting active voluntary euthanasia that went into effect in April 2002. The law sets guidelines for doctors requiring them to be convinced of the pain and hopeless medical situation and of patients informed consent to end their lives. Before voluntary euthanasia can begin, a second physician must confirm all the criteria are met.

The law also applies to people between the ages of 16 and 18 by their own or their parents' consent. Parents can request for the life of their 12 to 15-year-old children to be ended. Belgium and Luxembourg have followed the Dutch lead with similar laws. The three countries are the only ones worldwide with such legislation.

Switzerland has banned active euthanasia but allows providing an incurable ill patient with lethal medication. But it is the patient himself who then has to take the medication. There are two professional organizations in Switzerland, Exit and Dignitas, that offer to help people who want to die. They also offer their services to foreigners travelling to Switzerland.

Restrictive Poland

Poland stands on the other extreme. In the largely Catholic country, all forms of euthanasia are illegal, and it is also against the law to pull the plug on life-prolonging machines.

Though discussions in capitals around Europe are ongoing, most European countries permit some form of passive euthanasia but have banned actively assisting a patient's suicide. In Spain, the governing Socialists have promised new legislation. In France, President Francois Hollande has initiated a new debate on the issue. According to opinion polls, some 90 percent of the French would like to see a more tolerant legislation on euthanasia.

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