Crime & Justice

Colombians who’ve lived full lives fight to be allowed to die

By Irene Escudero

Bogota, Oct 3 (EFE).- Twenty-five years ago Colombia’s Constitutional Court decriminalized euthanasia in a pioneer legislative declaration, ruling that “The state cannot oppose the decision of the individual who does not want to continue living and who asks them to help him/her die, when he/she is suffering from a terminal illness that produces unbearable pain, incompatible with his/her idea of dignity.”

Since that was written in legal stone, Colombia has positioned itself as one of the most advanced countries in terms of the right to die and has been evolving toward the point where last year euthanasia was decriminalized for non-terminal cases.

“Those who are Colombian citizens and those foreigners living in Colombia for at least one year are recognized to have elevated and great autonomy related to end of life decisions and can make many more decisions about ending their lives than the majority of people around the world,” the research director for the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Laboratory (DescLAB), Lucas Correa, told EFE.

The country has arrived at this point “thanks to the cases of many anonymous people who over the past 28 years forced and pressured the judicial system to recognize those rights,” said Correa, who via DescLAB has helped many of them exercise the right to die.

In 1993, the brother of Maria Libia Perez Duque, “a woman about 55 years old, illiterate” and from a rural area, turned to the courts because his sister didn’t want to go to the doctor in Medellin to continue her cancer treatments.

The Constitutional Court had just been created and one of its first cases was specifically this legal protection matter. However, far from backing the brother in the matter, it ruled that Maria Libia had the right to “adapt (her) therapeutic efforts” and, thus, she could reject or modify the treatment offered to her. This was the start of adjusting the legal view of both life and death.

In 1997, however, Jose Euripides Parra requested that the crime of “mercy killing” be considered unconstitutional because he felt that the social state should guarantee people’s lives.

Consequently, between 1997 and 2015 a legal vacuum existed. Euthanasia cases, despite being legalized, were “treated” at private clinics and the right to die was available only to the social elite.

“What was instituted in Colombia was an enormous and fantastic private death market,” said Correa. The procedure was decriminalized but it was never regulated and those who engaged in it did so “illegally, clandestinely and privately.”

Until, that is, the magistrates on the Constitutional Court took the matter up again. In 2014, they handed down another ruling that made the right “operational,” that is, they opened the door to public euthanasia procedures.

One of the first cases to arise was that of Ovidio Gonzalez Correa, who was suffering from cancer of the mouth that was disfiguring his face. “I know where this is going and I don’t want to be just a wreck in a bed,” the 79-year-old shoemaker said.

However, minutes before the scheduled time for the euthanasia procedure to be carried out, the clinic halted it because the doctors withdrew.

Something similar happened to Martha Sepulveda, 50, last year. Euthanasia was authorized for her at her request almost without any problem, a date for the procedure was set and she went through the process of saying goodbye to her friends and loved ones. She also decided to talk to the media about her situation and to go on television before she was to die.

“Conservative Colombian society didn’t stand for it,” said Correa, who handled her case. “They were not willing to see a happy woman, who had lived a full life and was determined that she didn’t want to live any longer. She was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and had made the decision that she wanted to die.”

But not all the cases have encountered obstacles. Between 2015 and Aug. 31, 2022, according to figures supplied to EFE by Colombia’s Health Ministry, 316 euthanasia procedures have been carried out, of which more than half took place in the past two years (95 in 2021 and 93 in the first eight months of 2022).

The majority of the people were facing imminent death, and up until 2021 euthanasia had only been allowed in terminal cases.

After a new ruling by the Constitutional Court, however, “Nowadays, a person could say that the problem of dignified dying and end of life decisions is over,” said Correa, given that currently anyone with “intense physical and psychic suffering, due to bodily injury or serious and incurable illness” may choose to die a dignified death.

Since then, besides Martha, there have been cases such as that of Amparo, who after suffering health problems, decided she wanted to end her life so as not to burden or have to depend on anyone else to take care of her, Correa said.

“I want to make an autonomous decision,” the elderly woman said. And, on her own, she started the procedure to undergo euthanasia. After multiple refusals and obstacles she received a positive response and told her family about her decision. Before ending her life, Correa said, she took time to finalize her affairs and make several trips she had always wanted to take, and when the scheduled date arrived, she died with dignity, as she had wanted.

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