Colombia has become the only country in Latin America where euthanasia may be a legal option for terminally ill patients.
Since the public case of 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, a patient with brain cancer who campaigned in the U.S. for the right to end her life before she passed away last year, assisted suicide and the question of euthanasia continue to be ethical debate topics.
Colombia now joins Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands on the list of countries where a third party can administer a patient with a fatal dose.
On April 20, Colombian health minister Alejandro Gaviria authorized the procedure in hospitals across the country. “We need to educate people so that they respect life as a supreme right, and so that those who are ill are granted a dignified death,” he said.
The legal battle over euthanasia, which has been ongoing since 1997, seemed to reach a decisive point in February of this year, when Colombia’s constitutional court ruled in favor of the practice.
Despite prior rulings, civil law had left a decidedly gray area in regard to euthanasia. Under article 26 of the Colombian constitution, someone found guilty of ‘homicide for pity,’ in which an individual killed a patient with a severe corporal wound or incurable disease, could face a prison sentence of three months to six years. Practicing doctors and physicians simply avoided the procedure, due to a lack of regulation and awareness in Colombian hospitals.
This uncertainty was also evident in Colombian legislature, where the term homicide was used in documentation, instead of euthanasia.
In contrast, the new ruling has strict safeguards to ensure good practice. It does not apply to ongoing chronic or degenerative illnesses such as Alzheimers or Parkinsons. The patient must be considered to be in a terminal state by a medical practitioner – for example, patients suffering from illnesses such as kidney failure, terminal cancer or advanced AIDS are all given the green light.
The procedure is also only applicable to legal adults. Furthermore, if the patient is unconscious and likely to remain so, relatives must show prior written, audio or video proof for the decision to be made by a qualified doctor.
A physician who has approved a patient’s or family’s request will then have to present the case to a scientific committee, after which specialists will have 10 days to reach an agreement on whether euthanasia can be passed. Upon approval, the doctor will be able to confirm the decision again with the patient. The treating hospital will then be granted 15 days to help end the patient’s life.
In a strict Catholic country, the new medical decision has not been received with an entirely positive response. Reverend Candido López protested the ruling, saying, “by his faith, the Christian is called to unite his sufferings with those of Jesus on the cross.”
Euthanasia is not considered to be a dignified Catholic death by many in the church; nor does it comply with common interpretations of Bible scripture. Furthermore, the church has questioned the court’s focus on this particular case, arguing that other sectors, such as social issues, require more attention.
For Carmenza Ochoa, director of the Foundation for the Right to Die with Dignity in Bogotá, the health ministry’s response is a dignified and welcome response to those in great pain. It reflects a forward thinking stance not only for Colombia but also within Latin America, she said.
“It strikes me as such a terrible fate to become a living corpse, trapped in your body, suffering and unable to participate in the world.” Ochoa said.