Colombia’s Constitutional Court /   

On Tuesday, February 17, the Colombian Constitutional Court gave the Ministry of Health 30 days to implement a number of protocols pertaining to euthanasia, setting guidelines for all health care providers in the Andean country.

During this time, health agencies are tasked with forming interdisciplinary committees to advise patients and their families on their decision to resort to euthanasia, in order to prevent such a decision being made as a result of mood or depression.

The Court said that “without clear rules and precise procedures, doctors do not know exactly when they are committing a crime and when they are contributing to the realization of a fundamental right.”

In 1997, the Constitutional Court passed Article 326 of the 1980 Penal Code dealing with “mercy killings,” urging Congress to regulate the issue of assisted suicide, with the important caveat that terminally ill patients wishing to die could not claim criminal liability against the medical personnel executing the request.

Presently, however, the country has no precise rules for the application of this law, and consequently, many doctors refuse to engage in the practice, fearing they will be brought up on criminal charges.

The most recent ruling by Judge Luis Ernesto Vargas originated after a 2012 incident when a woman with cancer requested the option of assisted suicide, but was refused by the Health Promotion Agency (EPS) citing a lack of regulation.

In 2013, together with her family, the woman — whose identity was not released to the Colombian press — filed a legal petition, but died before her request reached the Supreme Court.

Legal in Theory

While Colombia’s Constitutional Court legalized euthanasia almost two decades ago, lack of a clear regulatory framework has limited its practice.

Carmenza Ochoa, director of the Foundation for the Right to Die with Dignitytold the newspaper El País that the Colombian Criminal Code views euthanasia as “mercy killing,” and is punishable by up to three years in jail. The only exception is made for medical professionals with terminally ill patients that are experiencing pain that cannot otherwise be relieved.

However, even though doctors can legally perform euthanasia in Colombia, they are still vulnerable to potential lawsuits, and must be able to prove to authorities that all the legal requirements were met prior to the procedure, Ochoa said.

Besides having a terminal illness that causes intense pain without relief, Ochoa said patients are also required to be examined by additional doctors who must reach the same conclusions as the attending physician. Patients are also required to have consciously made this request before the doctor agreed to assist.

Ana María de Brigard, a medical law specialist, told the newspaper El Tiempo that any law that is approved in Congress on this matter cannot deviate from the constitutional path laid out by the Court’s ruling.

For Brigard, regulations are needed in order to clarify controversial aspects of the law, such as allowing euthanasia not just when a patient is in physical pain, but when the suffering is emotional and intangible.

In November 2014, Senator Armando Benedetti tried for the fourth time to introduce legislation to regulate euthanasia in the Colombian Congress.

For Benedetti, the regulation of this practice would provide clarity for patients and their families, as much as for doctors and medial professionals. “Many of these professionals do not assist their patients during those times, although they are asked, for fear of legal reprisals…. All I want is to regulate something that already applies to people,” the senator said to El Tiempo.

Regarding the opinions of the other senators in Congress, Benedetti said most of his colleagues agree with his proposal: “In all honesty, I think there has always been a good environment for regulation, but some of them fear that Bishops and priests will attack and discredit them.”

Assisted suicide or euthanasia are currently legal in a number of countries, such as Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, as well as some US states. In Colombia, as well as Japan, legislation on euthanasia remains contradictory and its practice is based on previous court rulings.

Sabrina Martín is a Venezuelan journalist, commentator, and editor based in Valencia with experience in corporate communication. Follow@SabrinaMartinR. This article has been republished from the PanAm Post under a Creative Commons licence. 

Sabrina Martín is a Venezuelan journalist, commentator, and editor based in Valencia with experience in corporate communication. Follow @SabrinaMartinR.