Colombian Physicians Get the Final Go-Ahead for Euthanasia

EspañolAn 18-year wait came to an end on Monday, April 20, when Health Ministry authorities presented guidelines for Colombian doctors to perform euthanasia. The Constitutional Court ordered them to set the protocols in a February decision, after declaring the practice legal all the way back in 1997.

No guidelines on euthanasia have been issued since the Colombian Constitutional Court upheld the practice in 1997.  (b12)

Medical practitioners in the Andean country have routinely refused to support assisted suicide, fearing criminal charges. Even with the court judgment standing, there was simply no regulatory environment.

Health Minister Alejandro Gaviría explained that only adults would be able to make the decision, and that a doctor must declare the patient to be in the terminal phase of his illness.

Further, if the patient is unconscious, relatives must be able to show audio, video, or written proof of his previously stated preference for assisted dying.

The process will cost the patient nothing, and the Health Promotion Agency (EPS) is tasked with finding an alternative doctor or health center if the patient’s usual provider refuses to help him die.

The law explicitly excludes minors and patients with degenerative diseases from receiving assisted suicide, which will consist of supplying patients with a lethal drug.

Steps to Follow

The new regulations stipulate that terminally ill patients must express their consent to the doctor to undergo euthanasia. Once the expert is aware of the decision, he must present the patient with all the treatment options available to address his condition.

If the patient insists on the terminal treatment, the physician has to present the case to a scientific committee composed of a medical expert, a lawyer, and mental-health professional. The specialists will then have 10 days to reach an agreement on whether the patient meets the requirements to receive for euthanasia.

If the committee decides to approve the procedure, the doctor will have to confirm the decision with the patient. If the patient wants to continue at that point, the hospital is given 15 days to help end the patient’s life.

Long Road to “Mercy Killing”

In 1997, the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled that Article 326 of the 1980 Criminal Code on “mercy killing” was constitutional, and asked congress to promptly legislate on the right to die to shield doctors performing euthanasia from criminal prosecution.

In February, the court ordered the Health Ministry to establish bylaws to permit health-care providers to authorize euthanasia procedures.

Carmenza Ochoa, director of the Foundation for the Right to Die with Dignity (DMD), has welcomed the ministry’s latest resolution to comply with the order. She hails it as an important step in clarifying the legal status of terminally ill patients and the medical personnel who wish to support them.

According to DMD’s website, 16,509 Colombians have signed their testamento vital (consent to death under stipulated circumstances). The organization provides this document with information about the treatments available for various illnesses, but also allows people to state their preference for assisted suicide. The form, which needs the signature of two additional witnesses, would prevent further suffering of the patient and the family, the foundation claims.

“Attack on Sanctity of Life”

The Colombian Catholic Church rejected the measure in a statement sent to the Health Ministry, saying that the application of euthanasia “is a grave attack against the dignity of the ill and against the sanctity of the basic right to life, enshrined in Article 11 of the Constitution.”

Further, Catholic leaders have asked the ministry to provide solutions to other health-care issues affecting the country, which they claimed were more urgent.

“It would be good, Mr. Minister, if your ministry, so interested in regulating euthanasia and abortion, put the same effort into finding an effective solution to the crisis in the health-care sector and the needs of the poorest,” said the Church.

Translated by Adam Dubove. Edited by Laurie Blair and Fergus Hodgson.

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