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Euthanasia Debate

DW staff (nda)July 3, 2008

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has spoken out in the strongest terms against euthanasia as the heated debate over a former Hamburg government official's involvement in the assisted suicide of a pensioner gathers pace.

Hands clasped with person in hospital bed, partial graphic
Actively assisting suicide is illegal in GermanyImage: AP

Merkel, outlining her Christian Democrats' party line on the topic, said that she was against "every form of assisted suicide" regardless of the circumstances.

Merkel's stance was echoed by Germany's Health Minister Ulla Schmidt. "I reject this path categorically," she said. "The correct path is to offer assistance to those who are dying instead of helping those free from terminal illness to commit suicide."

The debate was prompted by the revelation this week that a 79-year-old Wurzburg woman chose to end her own life on Saturday despite not having any life-threatening diseases or suffering great physical pain. What added an extra angle to the story was that former Hamburg justice senator Roger Kusch, a proponent for the right to die, advised her of the best way to do it.

"I was in her apartment at 11:00 am," Kusch explained at a press conference he called on Monday to discuss the assisted suicide. "At around 11:30, she began to prepare three glasses -- one with the sedative diazepam, one with a mixture of the anti-malaria drug chloroquine and one with a sweet syrup, because the other substances can cause nausea. She drank the glass with the deadly chloroquine quickly. Her last words were 'Auf Wiedersehen.'… Then I left."

Roger Kusch
Kusch educated the pensioner on the best way to dieImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Kusch then said that he vacated the apartment for three hours so as not to be present at the moment of death. When he returned, he said, she was lying dead on her bed. "I am for self-determination until the final breath," he says. He also showed the press conference clips from a nine-hour video he made documenting his relationship to the pensioner, identified only as Bettina S.

Kusch made headlines earlier this year when he presented to the media a "suicide machine" patients could use to inject themselves with a deadly cocktail.

The case has prompted fresh calls in Germany for stronger regulations and laws regarding assisted suicide.

Merkel's conservatives in favor of prison sentences

Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party wants to introduce a bill in CDU controlled states that would make the involvement in an assisted suicide a new criminal offense which carries a prison term of up to three years for the commercial or otherwise organized offering of suicide assistance. The CDU is expected to put the bill to the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, on Friday.

However, the Social Democrats (SPD), the CDU's coalition partner in government, have their own ideas. The SPD would like to pass a law requiring doctors to obey patients' wishes as expressed in "living wills." The SPD claims to have wide support for the idea from other political factions.

But the CDU argues that such a law would presuppose that patients completely understand all of the implications of a living will -- an assumption that, given the complexity of medical care, the patient cannot possibly make.

The euthanasia room and drugs in a Dignitas branch
Swiss organization Dignitas provides a way and place to dieImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Both the Netherlands and Belgium passed laws in 2002 which allow doctors to give terminally ill patients a deadly injection, provided they were in full possession of their faculties when they made the decision to die. Switzerland too allows such assistance.

Officials in Berlin have been wrangling for months over what form a law governing how binding so-called "living wills" should take. Such documents outline what medical treatment individuals want should they no longer be in a position to make decisions.

Social Democrats urge restraint in clamor for new laws

The SPD's Peter Struck, the leader of the party's faction in the Bundestag, warned against making rash decisions in the heat of the debate, saying that few bills brought in immediately in the aftermath of such an event were detailed enough to be effective.

A terminally ill woman with her daily supply of drugs
Advocates say euthanasia is a humane solutionImage: dpa

Edzard Schmidt-Jortzig, the chairperson of the German ethical council, also warned about tightening restrictions and introducing criminal justice laws. He said that there were some emergencies in which euthanasia was the only humane solution.

Roger Kusch was careful not to break any of the current laws through his involvement with the death of Bettina S.

While he educated the pensioner on how to kill herself, he did not administer the deadly dosage himself. Because suicide is not illegal in Germany, advising someone on how best to do it is likewise not punishable. It is currently illegal to actively assist in someone's suicide in Germany.

Despite his Kusch's best efforts, public prosecutors have now opened an investigation into the suicide.