Final Measures Tightening the Law on Assisted Suicide

Although many German citizens want assisted suicide to be legal, support is growing among politicians for a draft law that would make doctors and organizations helping fatally ill people to die liable to prosecution.
The topic of assisted suicide is fraught with moral, ethical and legal dilemmas.

Can it be an act of love to place a cup of poison next to a terminally ill loved one’s bed? Is it an act of cruelty to refuse a spouse’s, grandparent's or even longtime patient’s wish to die peacefully when they feel ready?

Legislators in the German Bundestag, the lower house of the parliament, are currently mulling these difficult questions and others that surround the topic of assisted suicide.

So far, criminal law prohibits assisting in someone’s suicide if the helper commits the act – give the injection, for example.

As long as the dying person takes the final step on their own, however, assisted suicide so far has been generally exempt from legal punishment. That means assistants can prepare a lethal injection, for example, as long as the person wishing to end their life gives himself the shot.

Doctors in particular often find themselves in conflict with their professional code of conduct when doing so. This code defines assisted suicide as wrong and calls for withdrawal of the practitioner's license.

Now some legislators, led by conservative Christian-Democrat Michael Brand, have drawn up a new proposal that will only exempt assisted suicide from prosecution if the helper and the person wishing to die have had a very close relationship. They may have been married, lived together as friends in old age, or have been doctor and patient for many years.

Last summer, 67 percent of Germans told researchers from the Allensbach Institute they wanted assisted suicide to be legal – 10 percent more than in 2008.

The “Brand draft,” as it is being called, would penalize “commercial” support to die with up to three years in prison or a fine. The paper, which so far has only been discussed behind closed doors, considers organizations which accept remuneration or donations for assisted suicide and doctors who regularly support people in their wish to die as “commercial.”

Even a general physician who has helped two or three fatally ill people to die, and has perhaps been recommended by others as a result, could face charges under the new draft.

Mr. Brand’s proposal could become law when the Bundestag enacts new legislation on assisted suicide at the end of the year. Because it will be a non-partisan vote, meaning that parliamentarians don’t have to follow their party’s line, it’s not quite sure what the results will look like.

But so far, two groups of left-leaning Green and Social-Democratic legislators, who originally had their own paper, are now supporting Mr. Brand’s draft. And even some conservative CDU politicians like Harald Hüppe or Patrick Sensburg appear to be supporting it. They initially wanted to prosecute assisting in suicide much more severely, but now don’t believe their own proposal can succeed.

The growing majority in favor of tightening the law seems surprising because the discussion had started out in a very different place.

Last summer, 67 percent of Germans told researchers from the Allensbach Institute they wanted assisted suicide to be legal – 10 percent more than in 2008. Sixty percent even wanted to legalize private organizations which charge for assisting in suicide.

Only Renate Künast of the Greens and Petra Sitte of the Left are still calling for such a relaxation in the law. But even they want stricter checks for those who assist in suicide. Ms. Künast also calls for postponing the law until more hospices and consultation centers for people willing to die are available. She said she’s surprised at how rigidly many of her colleagues in parliament are currently thinking about assisted suicide.

When legislators take a vote in fall, much will depend on the role of doctors. A small group headed by Peter Hintze from the CDU and Karl Lauterbach and Carola Reimann, both SPD, want a more liberal rule. According to their proposal, doctors should generally not be prosecuted if they assist a fatally ill patient in dying at the patient’s own wishes. That differs from the Brand proposal because, as the parliamentarians claim, not every patient has a close, long-term relation with his doctor.

So far, the vague legal situation has prevented many physicians from helping people wishing to end their life, for fear of losing their licenses. If the Brand proposal becomes law, they will have to prove in court that they were especially close with their deceased patient. Few will take that risk.

Family Minister Kristina Schröder said that the more restricted the doctors’ chances to help, the higher the pressure on families. That will push family members or those attached to the people in question into the role of suicide assistant.


This article first appeared in Die Zeit newspaper. To contact the author: [email protected]