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Hamburg politician remains defiant over suicide assistance

Published on July 02, 2008

Public prosecutors have launched an investigation into a former Hamburg politician’s role in helping an elderly woman to die on Saturday.

Longtime euthanasia supporter Roger Kusch reportedly advised a 79-year-old woman, known only as Bettina S., of the best way to kill herself in the city of Wuerzburg, in northern Bavaria.

Kusch, Hamburg’s justice senator from 2001 to 2006, may also lose allocated retirement pay for his time in office, under a law revoking the privilege for “ignoble’” behaviour.

The politician remains defiant over his actions: “I will do it again,” he told Bild newspaper.

According to officials, Kusch was at the woman’s home at 11a.m, and half an hour later, she prepared three cocktails — one with the sedative diazepam, one with a mixture of the anti-malaria drug chloroquine and a glass of sweet syrup to combat the nauseating effects of the drugs. Kusch then left the apartment for three hours as she took the mixture and returned after she was dead. As he was not present at the moment of death and did not administer the mixture to Bettina himself, Kusch’s actions are legal under German law; advising people on the best methods of suicide is not a crime.

His assistance in her suicide has provoked intense national debate from press and politicians over the right to die, escalated by the fact that Bettina S. was not physically suffering or terminally ill and opted to end her life due to her diminishing ability to care for herself and an unwillingness to enter a care home for the elderly.

Kusch’s retirement pay as ex-senator, amounting to roughly 4,000 euros a month, could be forfeit for his actions, though no official measures have been taken against him so far. If retained, the money would be available to him in two years at the earliest, when he turns 55. The rule which could deprive him of this money is vague, however. Paragraph 17 of the senate law states that privileges such as retirement pay for current and former senators can be revoked following ‘ignoble’ behaviour of the individual concerned but fails to mention any specific offences or codes of conduct.

Although Wuerzburg lawyers, assigned to the case by Hamburg officials, have evaluated the suicide as lacking Kusch’s active assistance and thus technically legal, there is now talk among politicians of creating stricter laws on assisted suicide. Several German states are now calling for a law banning organisations, commercial or otherwise, from offering suicide assistance. This rule, however, would not make advice such as Kusch’s to Bennita S. punishable.

Kusch, who could be perceived as trying to raise the issue of the right to die with his actions, has long been a staunch defender of assisted suicide; after 34 years as a member of the CDU, he established his own political party, HeimatHamburg, one of whose main issues is the right to die and the liberalisation of laws concerning suicide. Despite controversy and opposition across the political spectrum, Kusch says he is dedicated to remaining active in assisting suicides.

Among those against assisted suicide is German Chancellor and CDU leader Angela Merkel, who told television broadcaster N24, “I am absolutely against any form of active suicide assistance, in whatever form it comes” on Wednesday. She also stated a need to “stay close to the position” of opposing active suicide assistance.

Political figures have been divided on the issue: Joachim Stuenker, spokesperson for the SPD faction within the government, was quoted by the daily Neuen Osnabruecker Zeitung saying, “I find the discussion of a new law on the issue completely unnecessary,” arguing that current laws were already adequate.

Kusch’s actions, despite their public nature, are seen as those of a private man and not to any commercial end. Talking to the Lake Constance daily, Suedkurier, he claimed to have received no money for assisting the suicide on Saturday. He continued that the charitable association dealing with suicide assistance, Dr. Roger Kusch Sterbehilfe e.V, which he founded in 2007, worked toward “people’s education and public information.”

— Dave Baxter

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