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German court to make key ruling on assisted suicide

Wednesday February 26 2020

Germany's highest court will on Wednesday decide whether a 2015 law banning professional assisted suicide goes too far, with critics saying it robs terminally ill patients of the right to determine their own death. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Germany's highest court will on Wednesday decide whether a 2015 law banning professional assisted suicide goes too far, with critics saying it robs terminally ill patients of the right to determine their own death. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Germany's highest court will on Wednesday decide whether a 2015 law banning professional assisted suicide goes too far, with critics saying it robs terminally ill patients of the right to determine their own death.

The judges' verdict will be closely watched in a fast-ageing country where the Catholic Church still exerts 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.

In its current form, the so-called Paragraph 217 law penalises anyone offering assisted suicide as a commercial service, whether they accept payment or not.

But a 2017 court ruling in Leipzig found that in extreme cases, the authorities could not refuse life-ending medication, creating confusion among physicians.

Six plaintiffs, made up of terminally ill patients, doctors and assisted suicide associations, asked the Federal Constitutional Court last year to overturn Paragraph 217.

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"The right to live does not constitute an obligation to live," plaintiff Wolfgang Putz told judges during one of the hearings at the Karlsruhe-based court.

Presiding judge Andreas Vosskuhle indicated last year that Paragraph 217 would likely be amended.

At the heart of the debate is the plaintiffs' argument that Germany's Basic Law constitution guarantees personal freedom and dignity, which they believe includes the right to a self-determined death.

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

LEGAL CLARITY

Doctors are also seeking legal clarity on how the medical community can help terminally ill patients who want to end their lives, without risking prosecution.

Associations dedicated to supporting people seeking assisted suicide meanwhile say the law effectively bans their services.

Under Paragraph 217, professionals falling foul of the law risk a fine and up to three years in prison.

This has left German patients turning to family members for help, with many getting life-terminating medicine from abroad.

On the other side of the debate, the Catholic Church has objected to changing Paragraph 217.

Berlin's Archbishop Heiner Koch urged the court to "send a strong signal for the protection of lives".

The German Medical Association has likewise spoken out against legalising physician assisted suicide.

Its former president Frank Ulrich Montgomery warned last year that if doctors were allowed to prescribe a cocktail of life-ending drugs, it could lead to legalising euthanasia next, where doctors take an active role in ending the patient's life, for instance through lethal injection.

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

In non-EU Switzerland, as well as in the US states of Vermont, Oregon and Washington, assisted suicide is legal.

A survey for broadcaster ARD on Tuesday found that 81 percent of Germans believed doctors should be allowed to help severely ill patients with their wish to die, up from 76 percent in 2012.

Sixty-seven percent of respondents said Germany's Paragraph 217 should be amended.

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