Report on Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide by the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute [PDF file] (2002) - Scroll to Columbia section.
"The court's decision came out of the blue," Gabriel Izquierdo, head of the Center for Research and Popular Education, told the Miami Herald. "It doesn't make sense to me. It's like black humor that in a nation with one of the world's highest murder rates ... this would be approved."
In a 6-3 decision, Colombia's Constitutinal Court ruled May 20 that "no person can be held criminally responsible for taking the life of a terminally ill patient who has given clear authorization to do so," according to the Washington Post. The court defined "terminally ill" person as those with diseases such as "cancer, AIDS, and kidney or liver failure if they are terminal and the cause of extreme suffering," the Post reported. The ruling specifically refused to authorize euthanasia for people with degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, or Lou Gehrig's disease.
Ironically, the court's decision came in a case brought by a euthanasia opponent who sought to tighten Colombia's 1980 law against euthanasia. Under that law, a person found guilty of assisting in a suicide could receive a prison sentence of six months to three years, the Post reported.
Jose Euripedes Parra Parra, who brought the case to the court, told the Post that the ruling went far beyond the bounds of the court's mandate: "The role of the Constitutional Court is to preserve the ... constitution and not to legislate," he said. "Life...is a legal concept that deserves the full protection of the state."
The ruling also surprised pro-euthanasia activists. "It was a real bombshell",Beatriz Kopp de Gomez, founder and honorary president of the Foundation for the Right to Die with Dignity, told the Post. "We couldn't believe it either, because we never approached the court. In that sense, it was not our doing."
Since the ruling directly contradicts current law, the court directed the country's Congress to develop procedures to "regulate" the practice of euthanasia, leaving it up to the legislators to determine "how the terminally ill who want to die may express their consent and how they should be killed", the Herald reported. The Congress is currently immersed in dealing with many pressing issues such as drug trafficking and violence, so legislators may not be able to address the issue of euthanasia for a long time, according to the Post.
The Catholic Church, at both the local level and the Vatican, has denounced the ruling and filed a petition asking the court to nullify its decision, the Post reported. The large majority of Colombia's population of 36 million people belongs to the Catholic Church.
"There are magistrates for whom freedom is the absolute value. Between liberty and life, they opted for liberty," Rev. Candido Lopez, a Bogota priest, told the Post. "The court is saying that the right to decide for myself is above the value of life. The dignity of the court has not been put in doubt as strongly as it is now."
Church leaders also cited the growing problem of life insurance fraud in Colombia where several murders have been committed to collect the victim's life insurance benefits. "We don't know where this could end," Rev. Lopez told the Herald. "A person who is gravely ill could be induced into, well, 'Sign here!'"
The country's Constitutional Coourt is considered one of the most liberal courts in Latin America, according to the Herald, issuing rulings such as one in 1994 that decriminalized the possession of "personal doses" of illegal narcotic drugs. One of the euthanasia ruling's dissenters, while retaining his position as judge, resigned his post as the court's vice president after chgarging that the final decision "went radically beyond what had been approved in closed session," the Post reported.
Colombia is nw the first nation whose highest curt has expressly sanctioned euthanasia. In the Netherlands, the practice has become widespread, although it is not officially legal. In Japan, the Yokohama District Court ruled in March 1995 that euthanasia was legal for terminally ill patients who have no alternative treatments available and have clearly asked to die, according to Japan Times. Polls done in the country since the ruling have found that most doctors still oppose euthanasia, Agence France-Presse reported.