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German high court overturns ban on assisted suicide

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Ruling says freedom to choose one’s death is “guaranteed in all stages” of life.

Germany’s highest court on Wednesday overturned a five-year-old ban on organized medically-assisted suicide. The ruling allows terminally and gravely ill patients to seek help ending their lives without leaving the country.

The court sided with a group of terminally ill patients and doctors who challenged the 2015 ban, which made “commercial promotion of assisted suicide” a criminal offense, the BBC reported.

Assisted suicide had been legal in Germany. But the 2015 law was meant to stop groups or individuals “creating a form of business, by helping people to die in return for money. In practice it meant a ban on providing any type of ‘recurring’ assistance,” said the BBC.

“The rule is not compatible with the basic law and thus void,” said Judge Andreas Vosskuhle, the president of the eight-member Federal Constitutional Court, according to the New York Times. The court found that the right to die “includes the freedom to take one’s life and to rely on the voluntary help of another person,” the Times reported:

With the ruling on Wednesday, Germany will once more allow people to help those too ill to end their lives, even if they do so in an organized fashion, as medical practitioners and end-of-life volunteer associations aim to do.

Hermann Gröhe, a former health minister who helped create the original ban, told reporters that he believed the decision would pave the way toward the “normalization of suicide as a treatment option,” the newspaper said, adding that the German government will examine the ruling before deciding how to proceed.

According to the BBC, euthanasia remains punishable by up to five years in jail, and doctors cannot be required against their will to help provide assisted suicide.

Agence France-Presse reported that part of the ruling said that people have “the right to a self-determined death.” That right includes “the freedom to take one’s life and seek help doing so,” the wire service reported:

The court also surprised observers by explicitly stating that the right to assisted suicide services should not be limited to the seriously or incurably ill.

The freedom to choose one’s death “is guaranteed in all stages of a person’s existence,” the verdict read.

AFP and others pointed out that the issue has dark connotations in Germany, where the National Socialists had implemented a euthanasia program killing 300,000 handicapped and mentally disabled persons.

In a joint statement, the German Bishops’ Conference and the Evangelical Church of Germany said they feared elderly or sick people would feel “internal or external pressure” to make use of assisted suicide services, the news agency said.

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