The tabloid Bild calls it "perverse." Germany's Health Minister Ulla Schmidt said "I reject this path categorically." And Jörg-Dietrich Hoppe, president of the German Medical Association, calls it "abhorrent and deeply schocking." Those, though, are just a few of the myriad expressions of outrage filling the pages of German newspapers on Tuesday after the death of a 79-year-old pensioner in Würzburg over the weekend. The woman chose to end her own life on Saturday despite not having any life-threatening diseases or suffering great physical pain. And a former Hamburg justice senator named Roger Kusch, long a proponent for the right to die, advised her of best way to do herself in.
"I was in her apartment at 11:00 a.m," Kusch explained at a press conference he called on Monday to discuss the assisted suicide. "At around 11:30, she began to prepare three glasses -- one with the sedative diazepam, one with a mixture of the anti-malaria drug chloroquine and one with a sweet syrup, because the other substances can cause nausea. She drank the glass with the deadly chloroquine quickly. Her last words were 'Auf Wiedersehen.' Then I left."
Kusch vacated the apartment for three hours so as not to be present at the moment of death. When he returned, he said, she was lying dead on her bed. "I am for self-determination until the final breath," he says.
Kusch on Monday also showed excerpts from a nine-hour long video he made documenting his relationship to the pensioner, identified only as Bettina S. He described how she got in touch with him after he made headlines in the spring by presenting a "suicide machine" patients could use to inject themselves with a deadly cocktail. The video also included long passages in which Bettina S. spoke about how difficult life had become for her and that she sometimes couldn't even motivate herself to get off the couch to make something to eat. But, she said, "I can't say that I am suffering."
The case has immediately set off yet another round of an intense nationwide debate in Germany about assisted suicide and the question as to when a patient has a right to die and when not. It is currently illegal to actively assist in someone's suicide in Germany. Kusch went out of his way to make sure he didn't fall afoul of that law. While he educated Bettina S. on how to kill herself, he did not administer the deadly dosage himself. Because suicide is not illegal in Germany, advising someone on how best to do it is likewise not punishable.
Still, the incident provides new fuel to an ongoing debate within Germany's coalition. Berlin has for months been wrangling over a new law governing how binding so-called "living wills" should be. Such documents outline what medical treatment individuals want should they no longer be in a position to make decisions.
Germany's Social Democrats, with support from much of Germany's political spectrum, would like to pass a law requiring doctors to obey patients' wishes as expressed in such "living wills." So far, though, the law has not been passed due to concerns raised by Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats. The party says that such a document presupposes that patients completely understand all of the implications of a living will -- an assumption that, given the complexity of medical care, one cannot possibly make, the CDU argues.
As nuanced as that debate may be, though, the death of Bettina S., many are saying on Tuesday, crossed a clear line. The former X-ray technician, who never married and has no children, says in the video that one of her motivations to kill herself was that she was afraid of ending up alone in a nursing home. According to reports on Tuesday, she had also contacted the Swiss assisted suicide organization Dignitas before getting in touch with Kusch.
Kusch clearly hopes that the case and the ensuing debate will push Germany yet another step closer to allowing assisted suicide. Both the Netherlands and Belgium passed laws in 2002 which allow doctors to give terminally ill patients a deadly injection, provided they were in full possession of their faculties when they made the decision to die. Switzerland too allows such assistance.
As careful as Kusch apparently was not to cross the lines of legality, public prosecutors have now opened an investigation. Justice ministers from a number of German states have likewise condemned Kusch and a group of states has begun the process of introducing a bill that foresees prison sentences of up to three years for the commercial or otherwise organized offering of suicide assistance.
Still, even were such a law passed, it would not go as far as to make illegal the kind of suicide consulting provided by Kusch. After all, there are a number of pamphlets available in Germany offering those interested information on how to take their own lives.
The outrage in Germany, though, is intense and the proposed law is likely to find support on both sides of the aisle should it reach the Bundestag, Germany's parliament. Health Minister Schmidt told Bild on Tuesday, "the correct path is to offer assistance to those who are dying" instead of helping those free from terminal illness commit suicide. "That would be an important contribution to ending the debate on assisted suicide."