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In a surprise move, the Federal Court of Justice of Germany has legalized direct euthanasia, ruling that an attempted direct euthanasia of a comatose woman was not unlawful since she had given consent.

“The expressed wishes of the patient … justified not only the end of treatment via the withholding of further nourishment but also the active step of ending or preventing the treatment she no longer wanted,” the court said.

The ruling in the case of “Erika K” overturns a previous conviction for manslaughter of a lawyer who advised the daughter of a comatose woman in her 70s to cut her mother’s feeding tube with a pair of scissors, after nursing home staff had refused to remove it.

A lower court acquitted the daughter of killing her mother because she had “mistakenly” followed her lawyer’s advice. The lawyer, Wolfgang Putz, was convicted and given a nine month suspended sentence. The government prosecutor was asking the court for a stronger sentence.

Putz’s lawyer had argued that the use of a gastric tube is “forced treatment” that the daughter had a right to terminate according to the known will of her mother.

Although Chancellor Angela Merkel has previously stated that she opposes any form of assisted suicide, the decision was welcomed by her government. Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said, “In a difficult phase of life, wills by patients provide safety for patients, relatives, doctors and nurses.”

“The will freely formulated by a human being must be respected in all circumstances of life.”

In countries that have already legalized euthanasia, such “safeguards” as living wills are often cited by euthanasia campaigners as means of avoiding abuse of power by doctors and nurses. Nevertheless, reports from Belgium and the Netherlands are increasingly showing that patients are regularly being killed without any form of consent being given.

In May this year, a report published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that over 30 per cent of reported euthanasia cases in one region in Belgium were carried out without the consent of the patient.

In 2003, the Netherlands became the first country in the world after the downfall of the Nazi regime to legalize euthanasia. In the last two years, euthanasia cases there have seen a sudden rise, with an increase of 13 per cent in the last year following a sudden jump of 10 per cent in 2008.

In 2005, one study estimated that cases of involuntary euthanasia, in which doctors do not follow the legal procedure to gain consent of the patient or family, account for about 550 deaths in the Netherlands each year.

Dr. Els Borst, the former Dutch health minister and deputy prime minister who guided the country’s euthanasia law through parliament, has lamented the increase in euthanasia cases and said that it has effectively destroyed the country’s palliative care system.

The issue of direct euthanasia of disabled patients is particularly sensitive in Germany, whose National Socialist regime carried out mass killings of patients in the years building up to the Second World War. In the so-called Aktion T-4 program, the government sanctioned the killing of thousands of orphans, mentally ill and disabled patients in the care of the state who were considered “life unworthy of life.”

In the case of many of the children, the deaths were by starvation.
URL: [25 June 2010, Hilary White, Berlin,]