The German Ethics Council debates ethical issues surrounding suicide

At its public plenary meeting on 22 January the German Ethics Council discussed ethical positions on suicide.

The meeting began with an introduction to the subject by Frank Emmrich, Edzard Schmidt-Jortzig, Eberhard Schockenhoff and Michael Wunder, members of the German Ethics Council.

Medicine today can appreciably prolong life. However, this increases the risk of long periods of declining health and of an agonizing death. As a result, society is confronted again and again with the circumstances of dying and with the need to make full use of the possibilities of humane end-of-life and palliative care, while in addition being compelled not to disregard matters such as suicide, assisted suicide and euthanasia as a last resort for a dying person to end a situation of unbearable suffering.

Recent surveys show that a majority of the population favours euthanasia and that it is also rated positively by many medical practitioners.

Assisting someone to commit suicide is not a punishable offence in Germany, whereas killing on request is subject to penal sanctions. However, the speakers noted that the boundaries between the various forms of cooperation in another person's death were often fluid and ill-defined.

In the ensuing discussion the members of the Ethics Council took the view that killing on request remained unacceptable. On the other hand, a wide range of ethical positions were expressed on the issue of assisted suicide. Some Council members held not only that the taboo on assisted suicide should be lifted, but also that such assistance should be placed in the hands of doctors. Other members considered that assisting a person to commit suicide should in future be made a punishable offence.

The National Ethics Council published an Opinion on Self-Determination and Care at the End of Life back in 2006. In view of the initiative of the Bundesrat [the Upper House of the Federal Parliament] seeking the prohibition of organized euthanasia, as well as of the ongoing public interest in these issues, the German Ethics Council is contemplating the possibility of revisiting the subject in the medium term.