Assisted Suicide Provokes Outcry in Germany

German lawmakers debate new law on the right to die.


PASSAU, Germany, July 4, 2008 — -- Lawmakers gathered in Berlin today to discuss legislative steps for a new law that would outline Germany's position on the right to die.

The meeting, which had been scheduled some time ago, came only a few days after a widely publicized suicide that caused public outcry here.

Earlier this week, Roger Kusch, a German campaigner for assisted suicide, admitted publicly that he'd helped a 79-year-old woman from the Bavarian city of Wuerzburg after she'd decided to commit suicide.

He told reporters at a news conference in Hamburg that he had counseled the woman about how to commit suicide but that he did not administer the deadly drugs.

Kusch said he actually left the room after she drank a poisonous brew, which contained the anti-malaria drug chloroquine and a sedative called diazepam.

He returned to the woman's apartment three hours later to find her dead on her bed.

"She has died with dignity, a peaceful death for which she had decided of her own free will," he said. "Her last words were "auf Wiedersehen," or farewell.

The woman, Bettina Schardt, a retired X-ray technician, was single and apparently had no family to look after her.

Kusch said that she was neither terminally ill nor suffering acute pain but her life was unpleasant.

He showed reporters a video tape on which the woman was heard saying, "I can't really say I'm suffering, but I find it extremely hard to care for myself."

Kusch also said that she had trouble moving around in her apartment and hardly ever went outside.

"She knew her physical condition was deteriorating, she figured life in a nursing home would soon become her only option, and she was not going to accept that," Kusch told ABC News in a telephone interview today.

"That thought was simply unbearable for her. She has decided of her own free will that she would rather die than live in a nursing home."

Kusch is a trained lawyer who formerly served as a secretary of justice in the Hamburg city council.

He knew to be careful about actively assisting the woman, and he videotaped the entire process by remote control as proof to avoid legal prosecution.

Neither suicide nor passively assisted suicide is illegal. But euthanasia, or killing on demand, is a punishable crime in Germany, which can blur the line.

Germans are struggling with the issue because it brings back horrible memories of the Nazi's euthanasia program, which was responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of people.

Kusch, who is also the founder of an organization called Assisted Death, told ABC News, "Most people simply want to die in their own beds; most important, they want to die with dignity. Why not help those who decide of their own free will they want to commit suicide? Every person has the right to choose to die, even if they are not terminally ill.

"Mrs. Schardt had already decided to commit suicide when she first contacted me in April," he said. "She was a very analytical person, there was no question if she would kill herself but only how she would proceed in taking her life. She left a goodbye letter thanking me for helping her to die in dignity."

Other European countries have more flexible rules when it comes to assisted suicide.

In Switzerland, it is legal to actively assist a person committing suicide, provided a doctor has been consulted and the patient is fully aware of the consequences of his decision.

A Swiss euthanasia group called Dignitas claims it offers a dignified death to terminally ill people by administering lethal injections to end their suffering.

In the past decade, about 500 Europeans, many Germans among them, are said to have traveled across the Swiss border to find help to end their lives.

Chancellor Angela Merkel told German TV station ARD she was absolutely against any form of assisted suicide, and her government is almost unanimously on her side, calling for strict legislation.

Lawmakers today postponed their decision on a new law until October 2008, but they ruled that law and justice enforcement authorities should put a break on commercial ventures that make money by helping people kill themselves.

They suggested that any commercially assisted suicide should be considered a punishable crime that will be prosecuted, and offenders can be sentenced to three years in prison.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events