A Colombian woman who was set to become the country’s first person to die by legal euthanasia without an immediate terminal prognosis had the procedure canceled days before it was scheduled to occur, a human rights group said.
Martha Sepúlveda, 51, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, was scheduled to die by euthanasia Sunday but received a letter late Friday that the procedure would not be allowed to go forward.
The Colombian Pain Institute, where Sepúlveda was to die, ruled that her condition had improved from July to October and that it could no longer take place, according to the Laboratory of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, or DescLAB, the organization representing Sepúlveda.
DescLAB said, however, Sepúlveda had not been treated at the pain institute for months, “but according to them she is better.”
Sepúlveda’s son, Federico Redondo Sepúlveda, 22, said his mother felt she was “back to her previous state of desperation and sadness, and there’s nothing that can change that,” according to a video statement provided to the Washington Post.
The case has garnered international attention, raising questions around how expansive euthanasia laws should be. Colombia first decriminalized euthanasia in 1997, and in July, a Colombian court ruled to expand the right to include not only patients with immediate terminal prognoses but also those with “intense physical or mental suffering, from bodily injury or serious and incurable illness.”
Sepúlveda, a devout Catholic, told Noticias Caracol earlier this month she did not see the procedure conflicting with her faith. “I believe in a God who doesn’t want to see me like this,” she told the TV station.
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ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease in the United States, has no cure and is always fatal. According to the ALS Association, the average survival time is three years, though a small share of people diagnosed with the disease can live longer.
ALS is a degenerative disease in which a person’s nervous system no longer allows for control of their muscles. People with ALS can over time lose the ability to walk, eat and breathe.
Noticias Caracol reported Sepúlveda slowly lost the ability to walk over the past three years of living with ALS. She told the news station she was at peace and calm about her decision to die.
The interview drew widespread attention to Sepúlveda’s case, and Noticias Caracol reported the Colombian Pain Institute cited it when ruling that Sepúlveda’s condition had improved.
Colombia is a majority Catholic nation, and church teaching opposes both assisted suicide and euthanasia. News of her procedure drew criticism from church leaders in the country.
“In accordance with our deepest Christian convictions, death cannot be the therapeutic answer to pain and suffering in any case,” Bishop Francisco Antonio Ceballos Escobar said, according to the National Catholic Register.
Since the Colombian government began regulating euthanasia procedures in 2015, 157 have occurred, according to Noticias Caracol,
In the United States, euthanasia is illegal, though certain states in recent years have passed “death with dignity” laws that allow for terminally ill patients to receive end-of-life medication.
DescLAB has said it will continue to support Sepúlveda as she fights the decision not to allow her euthanasia.
“They’re obligating her to live a life that she is not willing to continue to live,” Lucas Correa Montoya, another attorney with DescLAB, told the Washington Post. “What has happened in the past few weeks is an example of the long road ahead for death with dignity in Colombia.”