Martha Sepúlveda, 51, finally got her wish.
The devout Roman Catholic died by euthanasia on Saturday morning in a clinic in Medellín, Colombia, in the company of her family.
But it was a long road for the woman who made headlines when she asked to be allowed to die by euthanasia without an immediate terminal prognosis — those expected to live for six months or less — arguing that she did not want to wait for even more pain and difficulties from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, an incurable and degenerative disease.
“God does not want to see me suffer,” Sepúlveda said last fall in a television interview with Colombia’s Caracol network that went viral.
But the clinic that authorized the procedure last October canceled the euthanasia at the last minute — just 36 hours before.
Sepúlveda immediately fought back in the courts, and the judges agreed with her. “Forcing a person to prolong his existence for an indeterminate time, when he does not want to and suffers deep afflictions is equivalent to cruel and inhuman treatment,” the judge stated in his sentence.
Based on this decision, Martha was able to choose a new date and time for her dignified death and decided to do it on Saturday morning, Jan. 8.
“Martha left grateful to all the people who accompanied and supported her, who prayed for her and had words of love and empathy during these difficult months,” her lawyers, from the Laboratory of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, said in a statement.
Sepúlveda made history in her country but also in the region in defending the right to a dignified death. She had strong resistance from the Catholic Church. Her case transcended borders for speaking openly about her desire to die and the tranquility that she had as a fervent Catholic.
Sepúlveda’s attorneys hope her case sets a precedent. “Those who want to exercise and guarantee their right to die with dignity should not be afraid to make it public. Those who exercise their rights should never hide,” Lucas Correa Montoya, from the DescLAB team, told Noticias Telemundo.
On Friday, the day before Sepúlveda was euthanized, Colombia had already taken a big step forward in the right to a dignified death. In a Cali clinic, Víctor Escobar, a 60-year-old Colombian transporter who had suffered from various health problems for 30 years, was euthanized. It was the first procedure of this type in that country and in Latin America for a nonterminal patient.
A smile that reverberated on many screens
Before her scheduled euthanasia last October was abruptly canceled, Sepúlveda received the news that she was allowed to undergo the procedure with great joy, and was shown celebrating with her son on television cameras with a few beers in hand. “The best thing that can happen is to rest,” she said at the time.
Sepúlveda suffered intense pain from her incurable disease, which progressively destroys motor neurons, and she could no longer walk or do personal hygiene without assistance. Some ALS patients live for months or decades, but most live two to five years after their diagnosis.
Sepúlveda did not want to wait for that progression and the suffering and spoke of a God as a “father who does not want to see his children suffer.” The Catholic Church invited her to reflect, and many publicly questioned her in a country where a large part of the population are practicing Catholics.
Her family, emphasizing the right of each person to decide and have an independent opinion, supported her struggle.
Sparking a legal, medical debate
Colombia decriminalized euthanasia in 1997, becoming a pioneer around the globe in the right to die with dignity, but it took decades for health authorities to institute protocols to regulate the procedure for those who had a terminal illness.
In July of last year, the Constitutional Court expanded the right even more by eliminating the requirement for a terminal illness (a diagnosis of six months or less), since “it can impose the continuation of life in conditions that the person considers unworthy or humiliating,” the court said, claiming individuals had a right to autonomy.
That was the opportunity that Martha was waiting for. Four days after the ruling, she requested euthanasia, which was granted on Aug. 6 and scheduled for October, before the clinic rescinded the procedure.
Martha’s denial of euthanasia sparked an intense legal and medical debate surrounding her case and the right to die in what appeared to be a complex web of judicial and legal decisions in Colombia. Who makes the decision? How is it established that a person is seriously ill?
It was a debate that transcended borders: In countries such as Chile, Uruguay and Argentina, there are already bills that seek to decriminalize euthanasia.
The 20th Civil Court of the Medellín Circuit settled the discussion by responding to the appeal presented by the woman’s lawyers. “The judge recognized that it is up to each person to judge and define what type of suffering he considers unworthy and incompatible with his idea of dignity,” explained Lucas Correa Montoya, Sepúlveda’s lawyer.
“It is not up to doctors or public opinion, or the church, to determine who suffers more or who suffers less,” he said.
“The reaffirmation of my rights at this very complex moment in my life fills me with joy and reaffirms my confidence in justice,” Sepúlveda said in a letter published after the court’s ruling.
This past weekend, her protracted fight ended, on her own terms.
A previous version of this story was originally published in Noticias Telemundo.
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