German Federal Diet adopts law prohibiting “assisted suicide” – but loopholes remain

The Bundestag today voted on four competing bills to deal with the issue of “assisted suicide”, i.e. with situation in which someone helps another person to commit suicide, for example by procuring a poison that will kill the suicidal person quickly and painlessly. The text that was finally adopted by a cross-party majority of Members prohibits the practice in principle but leaving some regrettable loopholes.

While other countries explicitly prohibit the providing of such assistance, Germany has so far abstained from doing so. By contrast, euthanasia (i.e. the direct killing of another person) is prohibited in Germany. The reason for this was that many lawyers followed a dogmatic approach according which, if a certain act (such as suicide) is not itself prohibited, providing assistance to it cannot be prohibited either.

However, there had been considerable pressure to close that loophole in recent years, following attempts by certain groups to use “assisted suicide” as a back door to force a debate on legalizing euthanasia. One former politician even tried to set up an association that offered suicide assistance on a quasi-commercial scale.

In today’s vote the second best among the four proposals that were on offer has prevailed. The best (and, from a legal perspective, clearest) solution would have been a total ban against the providing of suicide assistance. Unfortunately this was supported only by a small group of Members of the Bundestag.

On the other hand, attempts to leave the situation as it is (i.e. to adopt no law), or to explicitly allow “assisted suicide” on a broad scale (including the provision of suicide assistance by commercial providers), have been equally defeated. The text adopted today explicitly prohibits the provision of suicide assistance on a commercial scale. By inversion, one must conclude that providing suicide assistance on a non-commercial scale remains licit.

While this is doubtlessly an improvement, critics say that the new law leaves important loopholes open and might easily be circumvented. For example, one question is whether the law allows a medical doctor to provide such assistance to one of his patients, provided only that he claims no honorarium for it. One is also tempted to wonder whether non-commercial legal entities (for example associations) will be allowed to offer suicide assistance, and whether it will be sufficient for them to demonstrate in their accounting that their activities are not profit-oriented.

The issue is therefore likely to remain on the agenda.