On November 6 2015 Parliament voted on four proposals relating to the culpability of individuals who assist in another person's suicide. The aim was to fill the gap in liability.

Background

Previously, criminal law in Germany did not punish individuals who assisted in suicide – for example, a doctor who explained to a patient that a certain combination of drugs could be used to end his or her life would not be culpable under criminal law.

Parliament first discussed this issue in 2014 after Swiss organisation DIGNITAS became active in Germany. Some German doctors had revealed that they had offered information to terminal patients who had requested suicide assistance.

In other EU countries the question of whether assisted suicide is a criminal offence varies widely between a restrictive position and a liberal view, such as that taken in Belgium.

Alternative rules

In deciding whether to change the legal situation, Parliament had to choose between four alternative proposals. All four proposals were drafted across party lines and all members of Parliament had to vote according to their personal ethics.

The four proposals were as follows:

  • Any assistance in a suicide should be culpable under criminal law.
  • The counterparts to suicide – including organisations offering assistance and doctors who assist regularly – should be free to act as such. Only behaviour which is commercially guided and advertised should be punishable.
  • Doctors should be free to assist in suicide for terminal patients only. Any incorrect behaviour should be dealt with according to the doctor's professional ethics, not criminal law.
  • A person should be guilty of an offence when assisting in suicide if the act demonstrates that the person is willing to assist more than once, independent of whether the act is commercially influenced.

Parliament decided to implement the final proposal.

Implications for doctors?

According to the final proposal, it is not an offence for family members to assist a patient in suicide. However, it is an offence for organisations such as DIGNITAS to assist. Whether an assisting doctor would be held guilty remains unclear. Some members of Parliament argued that any doctor acting professionally is doing so on a commercial basis and should therefore face repercussions under the new criminal law. Others argued that it is the purpose of doctors to alleviate suffering and as a result they should not be held guilty of an offence.

The law aims to ensure careful monitoring alongside the ethical question of assisted suicide.

For further information on this topic please contact Tatjana Schroeder at SKW Schwarz Rechtsanwälte by telephone (+49 69 630 001 0) or email (t.schroeder@skwschwarz.de). The SKW Schwarz Rechtsanwälte website can be accessed at www.skwschwarz.de.

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