Vote by Germany’s doctors paves way for assisted suicide

Association of medics has removed a ban on the practice from its code of conduct

The Bundestag will vote on legislation for assisted suicide next month. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

The Bundestag will vote on legislation for assisted suicide next month. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

 

Germany has made a further step towards legal assisted suicide after the country’s doctors’ association deleted from its code of conduct a ban on the practice.

Last year Germany’s highest court ruled unconstitutional a law that banned offering assisted suicide services.

That forced German politicians to act, and two separate draft Bills on assisted suicide are working their way through parliament. A final vote is expected before the end of the current parliamentary term next month.

The issue of assisted suicide and euthanasia are particularly sensitive in Germany, given the Nazi regime murdered at least 300,000 people with mental and physical disabilities it dubbed “unworthy of life”.

German doctors held an emotional debate on the issue at their annual gathering on Wednesday. One camp urged the association to regulate the existing reality of assisted suicide in Germany, while another camp warned of “opening Pandora’s box”.

In a subsequent vote, a majority voted in favour of removing from their charter the sentence: “A doctor may not provide any assistance for suicide.”

The federation said it accepted its members’ “individual questions of conscience and no longer want to pursue this as breach of professional obligations”.

German Doctors’ Federation president Klaus Reinhardt insisted that, even after the vote, assisted suicide would not become a standard service for his members – a position reflected in a second motion accepted by members.

Doctors were presented with poll results that three-quarters of Germans were in favour of liberalising assisted suicide, according to a representative online YouGov survey. Two years ago support for legalising assisted suicide was 67 per cent.

A leading patient representative group argued that such surveys are always a reflection of the times in which they are carried out. “It is no wonder that the support for death on demand is rising in a time of pandemic with suffering, loneliness and doubt,” said Eugen Brysch, head of the Germany Patient Protection foundation.

No pressure

Next month the Bundestag will vote on legislation for assisted suicide. One draft Bill has been presented by members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), junior members of the Merkel grand coalition; alongside members of the opposition Free Democratic Party (FPD) and Left Party. Their proposal would require anyone wishing to end their life to prove that their wish is permanent, without external pressure.

And the opposition Green Party has drafted a separate Bill that would require two doctors’ opinions before patients could be given a prescription for sodium pentobarbital.

Whichever Bill MPs choose, it would see Germany join a small group of countries that have legalised euthanasia – either with or without external assistance.

Switzerland has long been a destination for people seeking to end their lives; the Netherlands and Belgium led the EU in 2002, later opening the door to euthanasia for children.

Spain introduced such legislation in December, which comes into force next month, while Portugal’s highest court threw out similar legislation in March, ruling it was too imprecise on the conditions for legal assisted suicide.

Austria’s highest court has ordered Vienna to draft legislation this year.