Windsor Humanist Society

July 6, 2008

Assisted Suicide of Healthy 79-Year-Old Renews German Debate on Right to Die

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FRANKFURT — When Roger Kusch helped Bettina Schardt kill herself at home on Saturday, the grim, carefully choreographed ritual was like that in many cases of assisted suicide, with one exception.

Roger Kusch & His \"Suicide Machine\"

Roger Kusch

Ms. Schardt, 79, a retired X-ray technician from the Bavarian city of Würzburg, was neither sick nor dying. She simply did not want to move into a nursing home, and rather than face that prospect, she asked Mr. Kusch, a prominent German campaigner for assisted suicide, for a way out.

Her last words, after swallowing a deadly cocktail of the antimalaria drug chloroquine and the sedative diazepam, were “auf Wiedersehen,” Mr. Kusch recounted at a news conference on Monday.

It was hardly the last word on her case, however. Ms. Schardt’s suicide — and Mr. Kusch’s energetic publicizing of it — have set off a national furor over the limits on the right to die, in a country that has struggled with this issue more than most because of the Nazi’s euthanizing of at least 100,000 mentally disabled and incurably ill people.

“What Mr. Kusch did was particularly awful,” Beate Merk, the justice minister of Bavaria, said in an interview. “This woman had nothing wrong other than her fear. He didn’t offer her any other options.”

Germany’s conservative chancellor, Angela Merkel, declared on a German news channel on Wednesday, “I am absolutely against any form of assisted suicide, in whatever guise it comes.”

On Friday, Bavaria and four other German states will push for new laws to ban commercial ventures that help people kill themselves. Suicide itself is not a crime, nor is aiding a suicide, provided it does not cross the line into euthanasia, or mercy killing.

But many here do not want Germany to follow the example of Switzerland, where liberal laws on euthanasia have led to a bustling trade in assisted suicide. In the last decade, nearly 500 Germans have crossed the border to end their lives with the help of a Swiss group that facilitates suicides.

“We want to make it illegal for people here to offer ‘suicide by reservation,’ ” Ms. Merk said. “That is inhumane.”

By helping Ms. Schardt end her life, and then broadcasting the result, Mr. Kusch has, in effect, hung out a shingle. A former senior government official from Hamburg, Mr. Kusch, 53, said he would help other people like her who decide of their own free will to commit suicide.

“My offer, since last Saturday, is to allow people to die in their own beds,” he said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “That is the wish of most people, and now it is possible in Germany.”

With his penchant for brazen publicity, Mr. Kusch recalls Jack Kevorkian, the euthanasia crusader in Michigan who all but dared the authorities to stop his assisted suicides, and ended up in prison. But Mr. Kusch, who is trained as a lawyer, is careful not to cross the legal line.

In Ms. Schardt’s case, he counseled her about how to commit suicide, but did not provide or administer the drugs. He left the room after she drank the poisonous brew and returned three hours later to find her dead on her bed. He videotaped the entire process as proof that he was not an active participant.

Prosecutors have looked into the case, but it does not appear that Mr. Kusch is in legal jeopardy.

Mr. Kusch also videotaped five hours of interviews with Ms. Schardt, in which she discussed her fears and why she wanted to die. He showed excerpts at the news conference, causing an outcry. “A 10-minute video says more than if I had talked for two hours,” he said.

While Ms. Schardt was not suffering from a life-threatening disease, or in acute pain, her life was hardly pleasant, Mr. Kusch said. She had trouble moving around her apartment, where she lived alone. Having never married, she had no family. She also had few friends, and rarely ventured out.

In such circumstances, a nursing home seemed likely to be the next stop. And for Ms. Schardt, who Mr. Kusch said feared strangers and had a low tolerance for those less clever than she was, that was an unbearable prospect.

“When she contacted me by e-mail on April 8, she had already decided to commit suicide,” Mr. Kusch said, noting that she had also been in touch with Dignitas, the Swiss group that aids suicides.

In a goodbye letter to Mr. Kusch, posted on his Web site, Ms. Schardt thanked him, saying that if her death helped his battle it would fulfill her goal to have “the freedom to die in dignity.”

To some champions of assisted suicide, Germany’s laws do not allow for enough dignity. Ludwig A. Minelli, a former journalist who runs Dignitas, noted that those assisting in a suicide had to leave the person to die alone or risk being prosecuted. In Switzerland, he said, “the helping person, as well as family members or friends, could stay with the person who has decided to leave.”

The larger lesson of Ms. Schardt’s solitary death may have to do with the way Germany treats its old.

“The fear of nursing homes among elderly Germans is far greater than the fear of terrorism or the fear of losing your job,” said Eugen Brysch, the director of the German Hospice Foundation. “Germany must confront this fear, because fear, as we have seen, is a terrible adviser.”
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…this post forwarded by Windsor Humanist, JoePkr, after a July 3, 2008 article by Mark Landler in The New York Times
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