German court opens door to limited euthanasia

 

GERMANY’S FEDERAL high court in a landmark ruling has opened the door to limited euthanasia if a person requests explicitly not to be kept alive by artificial means.

The federal court of justice overturned a conviction yesterday against a lawyer who advised his client to remove the feeding tube of her 72-year-old mother in 2002.

Five years earlier, shortly before Erika Küllmer suffered a brain haemorrhage and lost consciousness, her daughter Elke Gloor said she had insisted she did not want to be kept alive artificially.

After consulting her lawyer, and with her own brother present, Ms Gloor cut the cable with a scissors only to have care facility staff reconnect it. Ms Küllmer died shortly after of natural causes.

The state prosecutor pressed charges against her daughter and the lawyer, Wolfgang Putz. Charges against Ms Gloor were dropped because the court ruled she had followed “mistaken” legal advice, while Mr Putz was given a nine-month suspended sentence for attempted manslaughter.

The federal court yesterday upheld the lawyer’s appeal against his conviction.

“I’m in seventh heaven, this ruling is like an Oscar for my life’s work,” said Mr Putz, a specialist in patient rights. “This is the most important court ruling in our post-war history.”

In its ruling, the court argued that cutting the feeding tube made possible a “natural” death because it ended treatment that was being carried out against the patient’s will.

“A person’s free will must be respected, in all stages of life,” the judges ruled, insisting that “death on demand” remained a crime.

Germany’s federal justice minister welcomed the verdict.

“The ruling gives legal clarity on a fundamental question in the conflict over assisted suicide, namely what is permissible in the passive sense and prohibited in the active sense,” said Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, the federal justice minister. “This is about a person’s right to decide, and hence touches upon a key question of how to live with dignity.”

Hospice groups spoke of a “black day” for patients’ rights while the German doctor’s union warned of “arbitrariness” in future medical treatment.

The case made headlines in 2002 after Mr Putz reached agreement with Ms Küllmer’s care facility to remove feeding tubes, only for the facility staff to change their mind at the last minute.

After her daughter cut through the feeding tube, Ms Küllmer was removed to a clinic but died two weeks later. Four months later, her son took his own life.

Yesterday’s Ms Gloor expressed relief that the ruling had “achieved clarity for all”. “My mother didn’t suffer in vain, my brother wasn’t torn up over this in vain and I didn’t fight in vain,” she said.

Yesterday’s ruling legalises active measures as well as passive measures to help end a person’s life if it is their wish. It is intended to work alongside a law introduced last year allowing people to make a written declarations for or against treatment to prolong their lives. The German doctors’ union remains concerned that this contradicts their Hippocratic oath to patient care.

Germany’s Lutheran Church welcomed yesterday’s ruling saying in a statement that Christian ethics contained “no obligation to prolong human life at any price”.

“Allowing a person to die, should it meet a patient’s prior will, is not just justified but necessary.”

Germany’s hospice association criticised the ruling yesterday, saying it opened the door to abuse by not clarifying what was active and what was passive assistance in suicide. It pointed out that Ms Küllmer’s wish not to be kept on life support was given verbally to her daughter and not in written form.

The Catholic Church said it needed more time to study the ruling, but expressed concern that the court had “not taken into account adequately the crucial ethical difference between active and passive assistance” in a suicide.

“We are concerned that not making this clear will result in ethical problems,” said the German Bishops’ Conference.

Assisted suicide is particularly controversial in Germany because of memories of the forced euthanasia programme in the Nazi era.

Yesterday a former Hamburg politician was acquitted of manslaughter after aiding an elderly woman to kill herself in 2008 because she didn’t want to move into a home.