The Colombian legislature has once again failed to pass a law legalising euthanasia. Last week a bill proposed by representative Juan Fernando Reyes Kuri needed to reach 85 votes in favour, but fell two votes short.

Although Colombia is often described as a country where euthanasia is legal, the actual situation is complicated. In 1997 the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that that “the State cannot oppose the decision of an individual who does not wish to continue living and who requests help to die when suffering from a terminal illness that causes unbearable pain, incompatible with his idea of dignity”. It directed the legislature to pass a law regulating the right to die.

A similar situation exists in the US state of Montana where the state supreme court declared in 2009 that “nothing in Montana Supreme Court precedent or Montana statutes indicat[ed] that physician aid in dying is against public policy”. This effectively allows doctors to prescribe lethal drugs, but without a legal framework. Bills to forbid this and bills to permit it have both been unsuccessful.

In Colombia, more than 20 years have passed and one bill after another has failed.

Supporters of the right to die are frustrated. Reyes Kuri says that he understands that some of his colleagues in this majority Catholic country are opposed for religious or ethical reasons of their own, “but we cannot allow them to continue imposing their beliefs on everyone”.

Another politician supporting a right-to-die law, Senator Armando Benedetti, argues that euthanasia already exists in Colombia; it only needs to be regulated: “Why should those who do not believe in God be limited in their desire to stop living in the face of so much suffering?”

From their point of view, legislative deadlock creates uncertainty for doctors. Few are willing to offer euthanasia because, technically, it is still illegal. “There is still legal insecurity for people who decide to access this procedure and for the doctors who carry it out,” says Reyes Kuri.

Opponents give the 1997 ruling a different twist. Angela Sanchez, a representative in the legislature, says that the Court declared that the right to a dignified life implies dying with dignity — which is why Colombia needs more support for palliative care. Representative Edwin Arias says that the Court only sought to create an exception to the crime of mercy killing and not the legalisation of euthanasia.

Although the movement for euthanasia and assisted suicide seems to be gathering steam, there are still very few places in which it is legal. Only in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Canada and (recently) Spain is it permitted. In Switzerland, only assisted suicide is permitted. In the United States, 11 jurisdictions allow it; in Australia, three.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.