Euthanasia In Colombia, Legal But Still Denied

While Colombian justice has ruled to allow euthanasia for patients who ask for it, physicians are reticent to apply the health ministry's "vague" norms.

The Manuel Uribe Ángel hospital in Envigado, Colombia
The Manuel Uribe Ángel hospital in Envigado, Colombia
Angélica María Cueva Guarniza

BOGOTÁ - While euthanasia is now legal in Colombia, when faced with individual patients doctors still hesitate on how to implement the health ministry's relevant protocol. Take the case of 79-year-old José Ovidio González. Days ago, after five years of cancer that required a range of painful treatments that have destroyed parts of his face, he wrote down on paper that he no longer wanted to live and that his family supported his decision to be put to death.

González would be the first patient to undergo euthanasia under the new protocol the health ministry issued in April to regulate assisted death. Only, 30 minutes before being carried out, his first appointment with death was cancelled earlier this week. On Thursday, the Occidente cancer clinic where he's being treated announced that the euthanasia procedure was back on schedule, though the family asked that the date and time be kept private.

The treating physician Juan Carlos Arbeláez agrees that Ovidio has an advanced illness that produces constant suffering, that he "no longer has treatment options" and his request for euthanasia is "coherent."

Yet after a scientific committee was formed to examine his case, oncologist and thanatologist Juan Paulo Cardona stated that pursuant to the ministry's own stipulations in Resolution 1216 of 2015, "which are in any case ambiguous and full of gaps," Ovidio did not meet requirements for receiving euthanasia.

Cardona defends his positions with three arguments: Firstly, he says the patient has received all palliative care that could control his pain; secondly, he says he is "very functional and the norm says he should be totally dependent" and lastly, it appears the patient's death is not imminent.

The norm he adds, "says that it has to be a patient diagnosed as about to die, though the term is very ambiguous. One could say in this case that the patient will not die soon."

These doubts led to the cancellation of the appointment already approved by the Occidente cancer clinic in Bogotá, which has prompted Ovidio González to resort to the courts to protect his right to die with dignity.

Rodrigo Uprimny, a specialist in constitutional law and head of Dejusticia, a legal research center, says that the new regulations do not specify that the patient must be lying helpless in bed or dependent on others to exercise this right. "The norms clearly state that any patient with a terminal illness and expected to die soon, can apply for euthanasia," he says.

Now, while the idea of "dying soon" has multiple interpretations, he adds, medical committees examining patients' cases "could determine whether or not the remaining time entails dignified conditions."

On the verge

Uprimny says that the ministry's regulations do not obligate patients to receive palliative treatments: "The regulation says that patients must know that the option exists, but it does not force them to receive that treatment."

The lawyer also clarifies that physicians implementing euthanasia should know that the new protocol was created to regulate two rulings of the Constitutional Court (239 of 1997 and 970 of 2014), broadly intended to defend and ensure respect for a patient's autonomy in deciding on his or her life.

"Both rulings defend the right of any person to dispose of their own life, and give centrality to a patient's free will," says Uprimny.

Juan Mendoza Vega, president of the National Academy of Medicine and head of the Foundation for the Right to Die in Dignity (Fundación Derecho a Morir Dignamente), agrees. He says "one must insist on respecting the patient's will. Besides, you must not confuse a terminally ill patient with one on the verge of death. If you are slowly dying, what is the use of euthanasia? The patient can have that if they are suffering greatly, if there are no curative treatments and if it is known the patient will die in a short time. Sometimes they come up with the silliest issues because they haven't properly read the resolutions. The health ministry's regulation is not perfect, but adequate."

Another to give his opinion is Gustavo Quintana, known in Colombia as "Doctor Death" for having carried out 200 assisted suicide procedures.

"If the Constitutional Court has clarified to us that death is a right, why do we create obstacles to a patient's autonomous decision and desire to end his or her life?" he asks.

The wish to die, he adds, "cannot be judged because it is a decision that affects one person, as an individual. As physicians we have enough elements to determine whether or not a person's request is legitimate, and every point of the resolution should be debated. While I think this is a ridiculous set of rules, I have to adapt to them and I'm sure I am not going to get myself into trouble, because every euthanasia I have carried out followed the patient's wishes and had the family's participation."

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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