June 25, 2010 / 1:21 PM / 9 years ago

German court rules patients can decide to end life

KARLSRUHE, Germany (Reuters) - Terminally ill patients on life support should have the right to die if they want to, Germany’s highest civil court said on Friday in a landmark ruling on assisted suicide.

After years of debate in Germany over euthanasia, the Federal Court of Justice upheld an appeal by a lawyer, Wolfgang Putz, who was convicted last year of attempted manslaughter for advising a woman to help her mother die.

The court ruled that those caring for the patient should cut off life support if the patient willed it.

Cheers broke out in the courtroom in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe when judges read out the decision, which legal experts and doctors hailed as a watershed ruling.

“Today’s ruling gives legal clarity on a fundamental question in the conflict over what is permissible in the passive sense, and prohibited in the active sense, on assisted suicide,” Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said.

“This is about a person’s right to decide, and hence touches upon a key question of how to live with dignity.”

According to media reports, the elderly woman had told her daughter she did not want her life to be prolonged artificially before she slipped into a coma after a cerebral hemorrhage in 2002. There was no written record of this.

Acting on the lawyer’s advice, the woman cut the feeding tube keeping her mother alive. The tube was later replaced but the woman died two weeks later.

The daughter and the lawyer were charged with attempted manslaughter. A district court imposed a nine-month suspended sentence on the lawyer, but the daughter was acquitted.

Euthanasia is a particularly sensitive subject in Germany because of mass killings of the physically and mentally handicapped carried out during the rule of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

Assisted suicide has been allowed in Switzerland since the 1940s if performed by a non-physician who has no vested interest in the death. Euthanasia is legal only in the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the U.S. state of Oregon.

Writing by Dave Graham; editing by Andrew Dobbie

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