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Colombia opens its doors to euthanasia

Colombian officials approved the country’s first legal death by euthanasia last week. After a week-long legal battle, 79-year old Ovidio Gonzalez exercised his “right to die” at a medical clinic on Friday, ending his battle with terminal throat cancer.

Colombia became the first Latin American country and one of several countries worldwide to legalize assisted suicide in 1997. But the government delayed approving regulations until April, and no legal procedures were performed until now.

Sergio Litewka, director of the Pan American Bioethics Initiative, was surprised by and wary of the enforcement of the law. “It’s a slippery slope,” he told me, pointing to Switzerland’s Dignitas Clinic, where foreigners come to pay for death. Switzerland has some of the most liberal assisted suicide laws in the world.

One of Columbia’s new regulations requires hospitals to form medical committees that evaluate requests for euthanasia and advise patients and their families. Once a committee approves a request, it must be carried out by the patient’s hospital or a referral hospital within 15 days.

Now that regulations are in place, pro-life Colombian doctors fear they may be forced to administer euthanasia. Surgeon Jorge Merchán-Price, founder of a pro-life doctors organization, argued doctors should not be forced to perform euthanasia against their will: “It isn’t necessary to abusively force third parties to kill.”

In arguing against euthanasia, Merchán-Price suggested patients could effectively commit suicide by rejecting treatment. “It’s safe, it’s efficient, it’s painless, and in genuinely terminal conditions and with careful sedation, the process will only last a few days,” he wrote.

Litewka was surprised the mostly Catholic country legalized euthanasia before abortion, which is only allowed in special circumstances.

“Abortion is inside, you don’t see … a person,” he told me. “But when you are sitting in front of a person who has a life, who has a story … things are different.”

Critics say the government should better enforce palliative care, specialized treatment to improve quality of life for patients with serious illnesses. Colombia’s Catholic Church calls euthanasia immoral and has threatened to close its hospitals if they are forced to administer the procedure.

The moral issue of suicide has been hotly debated all around the world. The award-winning 2004 Spanish movie The Sea Inside portrayed quadriplegic Ramon Sampedro’s real-life struggle for the right to end his life. A Catholic priest, also a quadriplegic, tried unsuccessfully to dissuade him. In the movie, he tells Sampedro we don’t own or control life, but it is given to us by God.

— by Katlyn Babyak

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