Suicide prevention instead of suicide support. Reminder of a demand by the German Ethics Council on the occasion of a decision by the Federal Administrative Court

Published: 1 June 2017

Dealing with assisted suicide is one of the most discussed ethical problems of the recent past and has already been addressed by the German Ethics Council. In its Ad Hoc Recommendation “The regulation of assisted suicide in an open society”, published on 18 December 2014, it recommended a statutory reinforcement of suicide prevention and simultaneously underlined that, in a free constitutional state,  there is no legal obligation to live, which is why suicide should not be considered as unlawful in abstract and general terms.

In this Ad Hoc Recommendation, the German Ethics Council comments on the judgement of the Federal Administrative Court of 2 March 2017 (Ref.: BVerwG 3 C 19.15). The proceedings concerned the question of whether the Federal Institute for Drug Safety and Medical Devices should be required to examine requests for the legal acquisition of drugs covered by the Narcotics Law (sodium pentobarbital) by seriously ill people wishing to commit suicide. According to the court’s judgement, the general right of personality (Art. 2 (1) in conjunction with Art. 1 (1) Basic Law) also includes “the right of a seriously and terminally ill person to decide how and when their life should end, provided that they can freely form their will and act accordingly" (para. 24). In the event of an “extreme emergency”, it thus follows that the person concerned is entitled to be granted permission for the purchase of sodium pentobarbital for the purpose of suicide (para. 32).

In the Ad Hoc Recommendation, the German Ethics Council examines to what extent this judgement is compatible with the parliamentary legislator’s fundamental values on which the new regulation of Section 217 Criminal Code, which entered into force at the end of 2015, is based. The Ethics Council identifies a tension between the judgement and the new regulation and therefore advises the legislator to clarify the regulation.