Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Euthenasia a la Colombiana

Brittany Maynard. (Photo: CNN)
Colombia's progressive 1991 Constitution differentiated between simple homicide and something called 'homicide out of pity': killing intended to end another person's intense suffering.

In the late '90s, someone filed a lawsuit to end that distinction, arguing that murder is murder, even if motivated by compassion for another's suffering. But in its 1997 decision, the plaintiff lost. The court not only reaffirmed the 1991 Constitution, but went further: it depenalized killing out of compassion as long as the 'victim' was suffering intensely from a "grave, incurable illness."

The court also instructed the legislature to regulate the practice of euthanasia. However, because of opposition from the Catholic Church and other conservative groups which want euthanasia completely banned, the court has never legislated about the subject.

As a result, euthanasia is legal in Colombia, but has few rules: No minimum life expectancy; no requirement for opinions from multiple doctors: no consent degree requirements from the patient and relatives.

All of which sounds like a recipe for disaster: Legal battles between relatives for inheritances; murder charges against doctors; accusations from the church.

Dr. Gustavo Quintana, Colombia's Dr. Kevorkian, in 2011.
Yet, for the past 18 years, the practice of euthenasia in Colombia seems to have gone about as 'smoothly' as could be hoped. At least, in my nine years living here, I haven't heard of any problems.

The case of Brittany Maynard, who killed herself in Oregon, U.S.A. this weekend to escape a painful death from an incurable brain tumor, brought worldwide attention to euthanasia (even tho what she did was actually assisted suicide).

In part because of the lack of regulation, no good numbers exist about euthanasia in Colombia. One Bogotá doctor, Gustavo Quintana, talks publicly about the fact that he's carried out more than 150 euthanasias. When I spoke with him several years ago, he told me that he'd experienced no direct attacks from the Catholic Church. Undoubtedly, many other doctors perform euthanasia but don't talk about it.

While some religious critics would call each case of euthanasia a murder and a tragedy, to me each case represents the prevention of suffering for the patient and his or her family, (as well as family savings preserved, to be better invested in education or health care which can do more than just prolong suffering).

The Catholic Church and others hold that only God can take away life. But humans give and take life all the time. And, if God had really made human life priceless, then why does He (or She) take it away so arbitrarily - as in the case of the dozen coal miners trapped in a flooded coal mine this weekend. And, for that matter, why did God afflict Brittany Maynard with a deadly brain tumor in the first place?

Colombia is one of only three nations in the world, along with Belgium and Holland, which allow euthanasia. It's a tragedy that more nations do not respect this basic right and allow the sick and suffering and their families to find a dignified end.

In the wake of Maynard's assisted suicide, Colombian legislators are talking once again about regulating the practice of euthanasia here. Maybe that would make the practice safer, but perhaps it would only complicate the lives of doctors and patients.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

No comments: