Colombia Decriminalizes Medically Assisted Suicide for Terminal Patients

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    Justice decriminalized medically assisted suicide in Colombia, the first country in Latin America where doctors can help die a patient without going to jail, according to the highest Constitutional Court.

    Unlike euthanasia, which can only apply to a doctor -and it is already legal in Colombia-, the patient can now supply a lethal drug with the supervision of a doctor. “The doctor who helps who suffers intense sufferings or serious illness and freely decides to have their own life acts within the constitutional framework”, the Constitutional Court said in a ruling released this Thursday. By a vote of 6 to 3, the magistrates repealed an article of the Criminal Code that punished with 12 to 36 months in prison who attended suicide, even if the person who decided to die was sick.

    According to the Right Foundation to die with dignity (DMD), the difference between euthanasia -legal in Colombia since 1997- and assisted suicide “is made basically by who manages the drug. In the case of euthanasia it is the health personnel who manage the medication that causes death and in the case of assisted suicide is the patient who self-administers the medication that another person has provided him, “explains the international NGO.

    Despite being the only Latin American country and one of the few in the world in decriminalizing euthanasia, Colombian law sanctioned those who helped commit suicide. However, induction to suicide, or persuasion of a patient to carry it out, will continue to be a crime. 69.2% of Colombians agree with euthanasia, even in non-terminal patients, according to an Invamer firm.

    Opposition to that decision

    With the ruling, “the aid to suicide, when carried out by a doctor and strict requirements are met, ceases to be a crime,” summarized in the radio station by the lawyer Lucas Correa, of the economic, social rights laboratory and cultural (Unclab), which challenged the law. According to the court, this practice will be allowed only for people who are under “intense physical or psychic suffering, from bodily injury or serious and incurable illness”.

    These are the same current conditions to access euthanasia, which in principle was reserved for terminal patients, but was flexible last year by the same court. Those who fail to comply with these requirements will continue to be prosecuted and eventually sentenced to sentences of up to nine years in prison.

    Although Colombia takes a new step in the recognition of rights related to decent death, in practice there are legal gaps that undermine access to procedures. “If a person wants to access assisted suicide, as there are no protocols, very surely health institutions (…) They will deny it and patients will have to go to a protected resource to demand it”, said Diana Bernal, Director of the Master in Biorights and Bioethics at the University of Rosario. According to the expert, the Ministry of Health must define within the regulatory framework the drugs that may be used in these cases.

    Spain, Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg also allow euthanasia, while Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, and some states of the United States and Australia regulate the suicide assisted under different conditions, according to data from the DMD Foundation. At least 157 people have received euthanasia in Colombia, according to official figures.

    Progressive court

    For the Court, the contested law did not know “human dignity and the rights to a dignified life, decent death, and free personality development.” During the discussion of medically assisted suicide, the government of the conservative Iván Duque expressed his rejection arguing that only Congress could make a decision. “Adding another medically assisted death option without proper and adequate depth discussion may have negative repercussions”, the Ministry of Health warned in a letter sent to the Court.

    The Executive Power has not yet reacted to the ruling

    With the release of assisted suicide, euthanasia, and abortion until week 24, the Court put Colombia in the avant-garde of Latin America despite being a country of deeply conservative roots. However, justice also protects the right to the objection of doctors conscientious.

    In their ruling on Thursday, the magistrates urged Congress to “eliminate the barriers still existing for access” to a dignified death. It was the case of Martha Sepúlveda, who suffered amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The euthanasia of her was canceled at the last minute by a medical committee on the argument that she still had a “high probability” of surviving. Nevertheless, Sepúlveda challenged that decision and received her euthanasia in January of the current year. 

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