Landmark Case in Colombia


Martha Sepúlveda is pictured with her son, Federico Redondo Sepúlveda. Martha had planned to avail herself of Colombia's very progressive law on euthanasia, despite not suffering from a terminal disease, when political pressure was applied to interrupt her decision.

Sunday,  October 10, 2021 was to have been remembered, at least in Colombia, as the day a 51-year old mother and sincere Catholic opted to avail herself of Colombia's euthanasia law.  Suffering from ALS, the incurable progressive debilitating disease in which patients can in a short timeframe lose control of their leg and arm muscles, Martha Sepulveda would have become the first person in Colombia to take advantage of a decision in July 2021 by Colombia's constitutional court.  While Colombia had since 1997 established the right of a terminal patient to opt for euthanasia, the Supreme Court in July elaborated that the law also applies to a non-terminal patient with "intense physical or mental suffering from ... a serious or incurable disease".

The case is remarkable in several respects.  First, of course, it is noteworthy that in a country where almost 75% of the population is Catholic (and the Catholic Church has vehemently derided MAID and euthanasia), Colombia has been the world leader in advancing this end of life option, even before any state in the US or any Protestant-majority country.  It is often forgotten that Colombia was the first country to approve euthanasia in the even of a terminal disease.

Second, Colombia has boldly implemented a decision of judicial logic if not common sense.  Why indeed is someone facing extended suffering and indignity less deserving a quick end than one with the countdown at 6 months?  The Colombian court threaded the needle in a way which no US state, for example, has dared to even contemplate.

Finally, is the courage and conviction of Colombia's pioneer, Martha Sepulveda.  Despite her deep Catholic faith which contradicts the Church's official opposition to euthanasia in any case, Martha has no doubts she is making the right choice:  "I know that God is the owner of life... But God doesn't want to see me suffer."  And why, of course, should a just God want His children to suffer.  If suffering is good, as some have argued, should all painkillers including Tylenol and aspirin not to mention morphine and ether be condemned by the Church.

It is not as if her decision came lightly.  Martha was first diagnosed in 2018 and has since seen the disease diminish her mobility and autonomy, foreshadowing the ultimate end.  She opted not to let ALS have the last word.

However, in a cruel twist of fate, on the very eve of her momentous decision, she was informed by her lawyers that the Colombian Institute of Pain which had been scheduled to carry out the procedure had secretly met and revisited Martha's case, and concluded that her condition had materially improved to the point of a "high probability of expecting a life of more than 6 months."  However, it is clear that the revocation of its decision was at least in part due to the wide publicity of Martha's case and the vociferous objections of the Catholic Church.  Never mind, that Martha had thought long and hard about her decision, had explained to her son that this was her last wish, and that a scientific panel had reviewed her application and found it meritorious under the Constitutional Court's July 2021 decision.

Martha's lawyers immediately appealed the decision and a court reversed the denial of her right to euthanasia.  Martha has been overwhelmed by the national and international attention her case generated and has decided to retreat into a secret location to contemplate the turn of events.  It must be head-twisting to find yourself suddenly thrust from anonymity on the even of a self actuated death to a global symbol of the Right to DIe movement.

Politics have trumped compassion; organized religion has pontificated a cold message to a devout believer in God's ultimate mercy.