Colombian woman dies by euthanasia after historic legal fight

A report by Samantha Schmidt and Diana Durán for The Washington Post.

A 51-year-old Colombian woman died by euthanasia on Saturday after a historic legal battle to exercise the right in this majority-Catholic country.

The case of Martha Sepúlveda drew international attention last year when she planned to become the first person in Colombia without a terminal prognosis to die by legally authorized euthanasia. But less than two days before she planned to die in October, a medical committee determined she no longer met the conditions and canceled the procedure. A judge eventually cleared the way for Sepúlveda to move forward.

On Saturday, the mother and devout Catholic died “according to her idea of autonomy and dignity,” her lawyers said in a statement from the firm representing her, the Laboratory of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (DescLAB). The procedure was carried out in Medellín without obstacles or barriers, they said.

“Martha left grateful to all of the people who accompanied and supported her, those who prayed for her and had words of empathy and love during these difficult months,” they said. “Martha’s legacy is built on the life stories and cases that over 29 years have reached the constitutional Court and have allowed Colombia to be one of the few countries in the world where death with dignity and euthanasia are a right of citizens.”

Colombia was one of the first countries in the world to decriminalize euthanasia; its constitutional court recognized the right in 1997. But for many years, the country extended the right only to patients with a terminal prognosis of six months or less.

Sepúlveda suffered from the progressive neurological disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known in the United States as Lou Gehrig’s disease. After she was diagnosed in November 2018, she began to lose control of the muscles in her legs, to live in constant pain and to fear a future that would only get worse. Euthanasia offered her an escape from further suffering, her family and lawyers said.

Although ALS is a fatal disease with no cure, patients can survive from two to 10 years or more, depending on how their conditions progress. When Sepúlveda first sought out euthanasia, her prognosis did not qualify as “terminal.”

But in July, the country’s constitutional court ruled that the right applies not only to terminal patients but also to those with “intense physical or mental suffering from bodily injury or serious and incurable disease.” The decision allowed Sepúlveda to schedule her euthanasia for Oct. 10.

As her story circulated in Colombian news in early October, her decision drew a rebuke from local church leaders. A member of the national bishops’ conference urged Sepúlvedato “calmly reflect” on her decision and invited Catholics to pray that God would grant her mercy.

Then, in an 11th-hour move, her euthanasia was abruptly canceled. The Colombian Institute of Pain, or Incodol, which had been scheduled to carry out the procedure, said Sepúlveda’s condition had improved between July and October. The committee found no evidence meeting the requirements of degenerative, progressive and incurable illness, according to an explanation from the committee that was provided to The Washington Post by Sepúlveda’s lawyer.

Committee members based their decision at least in part on media coverage of Sepúlveda, who appeared on television smiling and laughing as she dined at a local restaurant.

DescLAB, the law firm representing her, described the move as “illegitimate and arbitrary,” and one that violated Sepúlveda’s right to a “dignified death.”

After the surprise decision, Sepúlveda and her family resolved to stay silent as her lawyers took her case to the courts. After her appeal, a judge from Medellín ruled on Oct. 27 that Sepúlveda was entitled to die by euthanasia.

The judge confirmed that patients who endure intense physical or mental suffering — with diseases such as Lou Gehrig’s — are legally allowed to access euthanasia even if their prognosis is not terminal, and that Sepúlveda’s health provider was not justified in its denial of her request.

The judge highlighted the lack of a cure or a medical treatment to stop the progression of ALS and said Sepúlveda presented significant evidence that her functional motor abilities would only worsen over time.

Neither the Ministry of Health nor Sepúlveda’s health provider challenged the ruling, allowing Sepúlveda to reschedule her appointment.

On Friday, a day before Sepúlveda’s death, a different Colombian patient became the first person without a terminal prognosis to die by euthanasia. The patient, a man in Cali named Victor Escobar, suffered from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“The fight to take control over the end of life continues and will not end until people in Colombia can access an assisted medical death according to their will and without barriers,” Sepúlveda’s lawyers said.

Federico Redondo Sepúlveda, Martha’s only child, posted a photo on Twitter on Thursday, two days before his mother’s death. It shows him with his hand on his mother’s shoulder, both of them laughing.

Before her death, Sepúlveda spoke about her Catholic faith and her belief that God would support her in her decision.

“I know that God is the owner of life,” she told Colombia’s Caracol News. “But God doesn’t want to see me suffer.”

And on Saturday, in the hours after her death, Sepúlveda’s son and family members joined to celebrate Mass — just as his mother wanted.

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