Germany's Top Court Overturns Ban on Assisted Suicide, Cites Right to Self-determined Death of Patients

AFP

Frankfurt Am Main: Germany's highest court on Wednesday ruled that a 2015 law banning professional 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, complaining that the existing law went too far.

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.

The legal uncertainty worsened when a 2017 lower court ruled that officials could not refuse lethal medication in extreme cases, creating confusion among doctors.

The verdict on Wednesday from the Karlsruhe-based court 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," 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 existing legislation made it "almost impossible to carry out that decision in a dignified manner", said 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.

Judge Vosskuhle said Paragraph 217 "also violates the basic rights of persons and associations who wish to provide suicide assistance".

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