The debate over the right to euthanasia has been reignited in Spain after a man was arrested on Thursday for helping his terminally ill wife bring an end to her life.
On Wednesday, Ángel Hernández, aged 70, confessed to giving his partner, María José Carrasco, 61, a lethal dose of sodium pentobarbital, and spent a night in a prison cell at a police station in Madrid. He gave his statement to a court the following day and has since been released.
Just before her death, the couple filmed a video to prove that it was Carrasco who had decided to end her life. The 61-year-old had spent the last three decades fighting multiple sclerosis and had reached the terminal stage of the illness.
In the video, Hernández asks his wife: “Do you still want to kill yourself?” She nods and replies: “Yes,” adding: “The sooner the better.” Hernández then passes Carrasco, who had lost the movement in her hands, a cup of water and a straw to see whether she is capable of swallowing. Moments later he helps her swallow the lethal dose of sodium pentobarbital.
Hernández’s lawyer, Olatz Alberdi, says the goal of the video was to show his wife’s “suffering and abandonment.” According to Alberdi, Hernández turned himself over to the police directly afterwards. “He always said he was not going to do it covertly, he wanted to shine a light on this issue,” she explained.
Upon leaving the court on Thursday, Hernández told news agency Europa Press: “I have declared everything I did for my wife and now I am under investigation and being held responsible for her death. The officials and police have been sympathetic to me, they’ve treated me very well and they have agreed with me – they said this to me outright.
“My wife had always asked me [to help her kill herself] and in the last four months, she asked constantly,” he explained, calling on the media to “focus on those who have this problem [...] Lots of people are in the same situation and we have to help them.”
“I don’t want to sleep, I want to die”
María José Carrasco had been a legal secretary and active woman who enjoyed playing the piano and painting. But she had to give up these activities as her physical condition deteriorated. Their house was fitted with handrails, and walls and doors were torn down to adapt to her decreased mobility. José Carrasco was first put in a wheelchair and then needed assisted lifting equipment. She was almost totally paralyzed and had trouble seeing and hearing. The couple asked for help on various occasions but were only offered sedatives, which she rejected: “I don’t want to sleep, I want to die,” she said in October.
The Madrid judge in charge of the case has released Hernández without precautionary measures but he may be called to appear again in court during the legal investigation. According to the pro-euthanasia association The Right to a Dignified Death (DMD), Hernández is the first person to have been arrested in Spain for helping a physically disabled person to end their life. He was detained by a homicide police unit in his home in the Moncloa-Aravaca area after calling emergency services.
No euthanasia case has received this much media attention in Spain since 1988 when Ramón Sampedro, a quadriplegic from the north-western region of Galicia, ended his life with the help of a friend.
The case has also burst onto the political stage, with the governing Socialist Party (PSOE) blaming the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) party and right-wing Popular Party (PP) for blocking legislation that aims to decriminalize euthanasia.
“They are the ones responsible for stopping a much-needed law that has the support of the majority of Spanish society from moving forward,” said PSOE deputy Jesús María Fernández.
Although the bill, put forward by the PSOE, has the support of a parliamentary majority, it has been held up in the congressional standing committee, which is controlled by Ciudadanos and the PP. Ciudadanos has said it wants its law on palliative care to be approved before it gives the final green light to the bill. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to talk about euthanasia without first talking about palliative care,” said Ciudadanos secretary general José Manuel Villegas.
The PP, meanwhile, has unequivocally stated that it is “against euthanasia.”
The fight for a dignified death
Ramón Sampedro, whose life story was told in the film The Sea Inside, raised awareness about the plight of people suffering from terminal illness – or, in his case, those who have lost the use of all their limbs and torso, and have decided they want to end their life. After spending 25 years confined to his bed, during which time he campaigned for the right to a dignified death, Sampedro committed suicide in 1998 by taking cyanide. As he was unable to administer the poison himself, his friends and family came under police investigation. His life partner Ramona Maneiro was formally charged, but was later acquitted by the courts. Helping somebody to commit suicide is illegal in Spain, although in cases involving the terminally ill, judges are usually reluctant to pass sentence.
Madeleine Z committed suicide at the age of 69 in 2007 after a lengthy disease of the central nervous system that was gradually leaving her paralyzed. She took an overdose of several drugs that doctors had recommended to her. Medically assisted suicide is only legal in Switzerland, and the Spanish police investigated the case, but decided not to bring charges against anybody involved.
Pedro Martínez died in 2011 after being given terminal sedation. He had been suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – also known as Lou Gehrig's disease – which affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement. Faced with death from gradual asphyxiation, and in great pain, he was given painkillers that brought on his death. Terminal sedation is legal in Spain, and was formally requested by José Luis Sagüés.
Inmaculada Echevarría convinced her medical team to disconnect her from a life-support machine. Ending therapeutic care in this way, when requested by the patient, is legal in Spain, and has considerable support within the medical profession.
Euthanasia. This consists of prescribing drugs to a patient suffering from a terminal illness with the aim of ending their life. This is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, as well as in Australia, and in some states in the US.
English version by Melissa Kitson.