by Judith Evans
In 2018, a Colombian woman named Martha Liria Sepulveda received a frightening diagnosis: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive and ultimately fatal neuromuscular illness. People living with ALS gradually lose the ability to walk, speak, swallow, and breathe. Life expectancy is usually two to five years, although some people live for decades with the disease. People with ALS are not considered terminally ill until their life expectancy is six months or less.
Martha Sepulveda believed that her only recourse was to apply for euthanasia, which is legally available in Colombia. She would have been the first person in Colombia to die from the procedure without a terminal diagnosis. Sepulveda’s story reveals the confusion and ultimate lack of compassion behind legal euthanasia.
Colombia Legalizes Euthanasia
Colombia’s history of legalized euthanasia is a tragic illustration of failed leadership at the cost of too many lives. In 1997, Colombia became the first Latin American country to legalize euthanasia when its Constitutional Court decriminalized the procedure. In order to be eligible for euthanasia, a person must have received a terminal diagnosis with a life expectancy of six months or less.
The Court, however, did not issue guidelines for the procedure until 2014. Meanwhile, hundreds of people were killed as doctors carried out the procedure without oversight. For example, more than 400 people died at the hands of Dr. Gustavo Quintana while political leaders ignored the issue.
Colombia’s first legal euthanasia took place in 2015. The patient, 79-year-old Ovidio Gonzales Correa, had a facial tumor and was living with painful trigeminal neuralgia. His scheduled euthanasia was cancelled 20 minutes before it was to take place, but an appeals court eventually approved his euthanasia request. Since 2015, 157 people have died in Colombia from the procedure.
Legalized for Non-Terminal Diagnoses
After the Court legalized euthanasia, many people with non-terminal diagnoses unsuccessfully applied for access to euthanasia. The Colombian Constitutional Court changed that scenario on July 22, 2021, when it ruled that non-terminal patients were eligible for the procedure, provided that the patient is in intense physical or psychological suffering, resulting from bodily injury or serious and incurable illness.
The Court pointed to the concept of human dignity, stating that:
“A person cannot be forced to continue living, when he suffers from a serious and incurable disease that causes intense suffering, and has made the autonomous decision to end his existence in the face of conditions that he considers incompatible with his conception of a dignified life.”
The Court, however, failed to recognize the inherent dignity of every human being, regardless of ability or dependence. The life of a person who is facing an incurable illness has as much intrinsic worth as the life of an Olympic athlete. A law that tells an individual that their life lacks dignity or worth is not a compassionate law.
Sepulveda’s Euthanasia Granted, then Cancelled
Within a month after the Court’s ruling, Martha Sepulveda was granted access to euthanasia. The procedure was to take place at Colombia’s Institute of Pain (Incodol) on Sunday, October 10, 2021.
On October 8, however, Incodol reversed its decision and canceled Sepulveda’s euthanasia. A committee of medical professionals, which reviews euthanasia applications, had been monitoring Sepulveda’s condition since August 2021. Her treatment specialist conducted an in-person assessment on October 6, and reported the findings to the Incodol committee. By that time, news media had shown videos of Sepulveda smiling and celebrating the granting of her euthanasia request.
Incodol’s spokesperson, Andrea Villa, explained that the committee decided to cancel Sepulveda’s euthanasia because:
“the patient has a diagnosis of non-terminal disease and a greater functionality than that reported by the patient and her relatives in the multiple medical consultations that were reviewed in the first Committee.”
The committee therefore ruled that:
“the patient has a high probability of life expectancy greater than six months, therefore she does not meet the terminability criteria.”
Sepulveda’s attorney, Camila Jaramillo of the Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights Laboratory (DescLab), announced a lawsuit to appeal the cancellation.
Legalized euthanasia is the subject of debate in other Latin American countries. Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina are considering laws similar to Colombia’s euthanasia law.
Worldwide, just six other countries have legalized euthanasia: Belgium, Canada, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Spain. Colombia, Belgium, and the Netherlands are the only countries that allow the procedure in non-terminal cases.
Ease Suffering and Value Life
Legal euthanasia sends an unmistakable message that ability and dependence determine the value of a life. The confusion and inconsistency surrounding Martha Sepulveda’s case proves that it is impossible to decide that some lives are worth more than others.The goal of healthcare providers, courts, and government officials should be to ease suffering and value the lives of all human beings – seriously ill or not.