Doctors save lives every day

Doctors don't have to save the dying

LEIPZIG. Doctors who accompany people who want to commit suicide as they die are not perpetrators. In the dispute over alleged manslaughter and "failure to help", the Federal Court of Justice (BGH) has now acquitted the accused doctors. The 5th BGH criminal senate in Leipzig confirmed acquittals by the regional courts of Hamburg and Berlin on Wednesday. The women accompanied by the doctors had "freely" decided to die.

In the Hamburg case, two women who were friends, 81 and 85 years old, each suffered from several diseases. These were not life-threatening, but the women saw their quality of life and their options for action increasingly restricted. They therefore turned to an euthanasia association, which made its support dependent on a psychiatric report.

The doctor in charge of neurology and psychiatry had just as little doubts about the women's ability to make judgments as about the firmness and "well-balanced" of their suicide desires. At the request of the women, the doctor witnessed them taking deadly drugs and refrained from any rescue measures after they were unconscious.

What were the cases like?

In the Berlin case, the family doctor had given a patient access to a deadly drug. The 44-year-old nurse had been suffering from an illness that caused severe cramp-like pain since she was sixteen. Various treatments did not help.

The woman took the drug and notified her family doctor. He came to her and looked after her for two and a half days until her death. As requested, he did nothing to save the woman's life after all.

In both cases, the respective public prosecutor's office assessed the doctors' behavior as a homicide and failure to provide assistance. The district courts of Hamburg and Berlin acquitted the defendants. Before the BGH, the doctors spoke of a “conflict situation”, but defended their behavior as a “moral obligation”. Like the defense attorney, Federal Prosecutor Michael Schaper also pleaded for acquittal. The BGH has now followed suit.

Doctors released from the duty of rescue

During the hearing, the judges had already pointed out the legal situation in relation to living wills. According to this, the will of patients who are capable of making decisions is binding, doctors are then not allowed to end the desired process of dying by "saving". The BGH has now also applied this here. All three women had decided to commit suicide on their own and “freely”. The general duty to provide assistance in accidents is therefore ruled out.

Even a treating doctor, as in the Berlin case, is in such cases "released from the (...) fundamental duty to save the life of his patient by exercising the right of self-determination of the later deceased". The BGH did not have to decide whether professional law was violated.

Ref .: 5 StR 132/18 (Hamburg) and 5 StR 393/18 (Berlin)

A criminal liability of the accused (...) would have presupposed that the women were not able to develop a free will to commit suicide.

From the notification of the Federal Court of Justice