Euthanasia once again shakes up the public debate in Colombia, a country that despite its avant-garde regulations still learns to live with the right to a dignified death. In the midst of an incipient electoral campaign, that old discussion has been renewed by the case of Martha Sepúlveda, a 51-year-old woman who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). She had everything ready to be the first person to access that right in the Andean country without her death being imminent, last Sunday, but at the last minute a medical committee canceled the procedure that had already authorized her.
The decision generated outrage and disconcerted the family, which is already taking legal action to protect their rights, since Sepúlveda’s fight is based on a decision of the Constitutional Court, which extended euthanasia to non-terminal patients since July. The Ministry of Health took refuge in the fact that the ruling “in its entirety”, which the high court published this Monday, was not yet known. The Court once again urges Congress to “advance in the protection of the fundamental right to die with dignity, with a view to eliminating the still existing barriers to effective access to said right ”. The legal debate is also political.
When the campaign environment begins for the presidential elections in May –preceded by the legislative elections in March–, some candidates have positioned themselves in rejection of what happened with Martha Sepúlveda. “No one, neither the State nor society, has the right to condemn a human being to a life of torture, pain and anguish,” said Juan Manuel Galán, one of the heads of the New Liberalism who is part of the Coalition of the Hope that brings together various forces at the center of the political spectrum. “The supreme freedom to live includes that same supreme freedom to die with dignity. It is an act of respect for human dignity. Neither religions nor bureaucracies should have the power to prevent free decisions in the fullness of a conscious free will, ”said former peace negotiator Humberto de la Calle, also from the Coalition of Hope.
Another candidate has been closely linked to that debate. “A dignified death is part of a dignified life,” trilled Alejandro Gaviria, a phrase that he often uses and echoes the well-remembered speech by magistrate Carlos Gaviria, who has described as “a liberal manifesto.” Later, he accompanied his message with a video of a discussion on “the right to death” in early 2018, when he was still Minister of Health. Both from the portfolio and from the academy, the former rector of the Universidad de los Andes has been a staunch defender of this right. During his tenure, he established the rules of the game for the cases of minors and facilitated the requirements to present the advance directive –one of the first steps–.
The silence of Gustavo Petro, the left-wing candidate who leads all the polls, has been striking. This type of background has allowed Gaviria, an atheist economist who for the moment has opted for an independent candidacy, to assure that in reality he is more progressive than Petro, and has even suggested that his electoral rival opposes abortion. In a campaign that could be marked by issues that provoke value clashes, Petro, who heads his own coalition, the Historical Pact, which has had close ties with Christian churches, has for the moment chosen not to take a position in the rekindled debate on euthanasia .
It’s been a long road. In Colombia, a secular state but with a strong Catholic tradition, euthanasia has been legalized for more than 20 years, but it has only been regulated for adults since 2015. Although many see there a triumph of empathy and compassion, the successive advances normative have met with the rejection of the most religious and conservative sectors. These forces usually congregate around the Democratic Center, the government party founded by former President Álvaro Uribe, with a long history of confrontations with the high courts. “The value of life must be above judicial decisions,” expressed Senator María del Rosario Guerra in one of the few pronouncements since uribism.
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In this history of social change, the Constitutional Court decriminalized assisted death in 1997, with a sentence considered an eloquent defense of individual freedoms. “The right to live with dignity also implies the right to die with dignity,” reads the presentation by Magistrate Carlos Gaviria. “Nothing as cruel as forcing a person to survive in the midst of disgraceful sufferings, in the name of other people’s beliefs,” argued the late jurist, who later became a left-wing presidential candidate.
That milestone remained on paper for more than a decade until, in the face of legislative inaction, a new ruling forced the Ministry of Health to regulate euthanasia in 2015. The story of Martha Sepúlveda has recalled what happened with the first euthanasia in Colombia, that of Ovidio González Correa, a 79-year-old shoemaker who was left without a face by an aggressive cancer in the mouth. The then attorney general, Alejandro Órdoñez, today ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) of the government of Iván Duque, tried at all costs to avoid that milestone. Also in his case, a medical committee stopped the procedure on the hour, which postponed Don Ovidio’s last goodbye for several days.
As has happened with other individual freedoms, euthanasia has advanced thanks to the impulse of the Constitutional Court, which arose from the 1991 political letter. A dignified death has reached the high court on multiple occasions, which in each of its sentences has asked Congress to legislate on the issue. And congressmen, as they have also done with other discussions that provoke value clashes, such as abortion or the rights of same-sex couples to marry or adopt, have tended to avoid the discussion.
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