German court overturns ban on professionally assisted suicide

JUDGE ANDREAS VOSSKUHLE
JUDGE ANDREAS VOSSKUHLE

FRANKFURT • Germany's highest court yesterday ruled that a 2015 law banning professionally assisted suicide was unconstitutional, as it robbed terminally ill patients of "the right to a self-determined death".

Judge Andreas Vosskuhle said the right included "the freedom to take one's life and seek help doing so".

The ruling is a major victory for the terminally ill patients, doctors and assisted suicide organisations who brought the case to court.

Known as Paragraph 217, the 2015 legislation penalised anyone offering assisted suicide as a professional service, whether they accepted payment or not.

It was mainly aimed at barring associations dedicated to supporting patients wanting to end their lives, but also meant medical personnel faced prosecution for prescribing life-terminating drugs.

In assisted suicide, a doctor provides a lethal substance for the patient to self-administer. It is unlike euthanasia where a doctor takes an active role in ending a patient's life.

The verdict was closely watched in a fast-ageing country where Catholic and Protestant churches still exert strong influence, but polls show growing public support for physician-assisted suicide.

It is also a particularly sensitive subject in Germany as the Nazis used what they euphemistically called "euthanasia" to exterminate around 200,000 disabled people. "The right to live does not constitute an obligation to live," Mr Wolfgang Putz, one of those who brought the case, told judges as they began the hearing last year.

At the heart of the debate was the plaintiffs' argument that Germany's Constitution guarantees personal freedom and dignity, which they said includes the right to a self-determined death.

For seriously ill patients who have chosen to end their life, the legislation made it "almost impossible to carry out that decision in a dignified manner", said Mr Christoph Knauer, who represented two of the plaintiffs.

Under Paragraph 217, professionals falling foul of the law risked a fine and up to three years in prison. This left German patients turning to family members or loved ones for help, some getting life-terminating medicine from abroad.

FREEDOM TO CHOOSE

We may regret their decision and try everything we can to change their minds, but ultimately we must accept their freedom to choose.

JUDGE ANDREAS VOSSKUHLE

The Judge said the law "also violates the basic rights of persons and associations who wish to provide suicide assistance".

Besides the churches, the German Medical Association has also spoken out against legalising physician-assisted suicide. Its former president Frank Ulrich Montgomery warned last year that it could lead to legalising euthanasia.

Euthanasia is officially legal in only three European Union countries - the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg - but others allow or tolerate a form of assisted suicide.

Judge Vosskuhle said the wishes of those wishing to end their lives had to be respected.

"We may regret their decision and try everything we can to change their minds, but ultimately we must accept their freedom to choose."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2020, with the headline 'German court overturns ban on professionally assisted suicide'. Print Edition | Subscribe