The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She was ready to die. Now an 11th-hour decision by health officials has halted her euthanasia bid.

Martha Liria Sepúlveda Campo, 51, pictured with her son, Federico Redondo Sepúlveda, had planned to end her life by euthanasia on Sunday. (Family photo)

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Martha Sepúlveda was scheduled to become the first person in Colombia — a majority-Catholic country — without a terminal prognosis to die by legally authorized euthanasia on Sunday. But a surprise 11th-hour decision by health officials has halted her bid.

Sepúlveda, 51, was awakened by her lawyers Friday night with news of a letter announcing that her euthanasia procedure scheduled for 7 a.m. Sunday had been canceled, after a medical committee determined that she no longer met the conditions because her health apparently had improved.

The decision came as a surprise, her lawyers said. She had no idea health officials were meeting to review her case. She had been quietly living out what she thought were her final hours, and had tuned out media coverage of her case.

“She canceled her phone plan because she thought she was going to die tomorrow,” her lawyer, Camila Jaramillo, said Saturday night.

She’s 51, a mother and a devout Catholic. She plans to die by euthanasia on Sunday.

Jaramillo’s law firm, the Laboratory of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, has vowed to fight the decision, which it described as “illegitimate and arbitrary,” and one that violates Sepúlveda’s right to a “dignified death.” They pointed to a recent constitutional court decision that allows euthanasia for patients with intense physical or mental suffering from bodily injury or serious and incurable disease, even if the prognosis is not terminal within six months.

“They’re obligating her to live a life that she is not willing to continue to live,” said Lucas Correa Montoya, another lawyer representing Sepúlveda. “What has happened in the past few weeks is an example of the long road ahead for death with dignity in Colombia.”

Sepúlveda was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurological disease known in the United States as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in November 2018. In the months that followed, the Colombian woman lost control of the muscles in her legs — and she knew it would only get worse.

She would cry at night, overwhelmed by the thought of not being able to get into bed or go to the bathroom by herself. Sepúlveda, who considers herself a devout Catholic, started reading about an option that she thought could relieve her fear of what was to come: euthanasia.

Colombia was one of the first countries in the world to decriminalize euthanasia, and one of only a small number — alongside Belgium and the Netherlands — to extend the right to patients without terminal diagnoses. No U.S. state permits euthanasia; 10 states and D.C. allow medically assisted suicide for terminally ill, mentally capable adults with a prognosis of six months or less to live.

Until this year in Colombia, the option had been available legally only to those who were expected to live for six months or less. Although ALS is a fatal disease with no cure, it progresses at varying rates, and patients can survive for years or in some cases decades.

The country’s constitutional court ruled in July that the right to euthanasia — recognized in Colombia in 1997 — 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 Colombian Institute of Pain, or Incodol, which had been scheduled to carry out the procedure on Sunday, said Sepúlveda’s condition had improved between July and October, and that affected an earlier decision to allow her euthanasia procedure to proceed.

After discussing the case at length, 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 Jaramillo. Sepúlveda’s illness “does not completely affect the functionality of the patient in instrumental activities or daily life as the patient and her family had expressed in previous medical records.”

Determining that Sepúlveda “has a high probability of expecting a life of more than 6 months,” the committee ruled that she wasn’t eligible for euthanasia.

Committee members based their decision at least in part on media coverage of Sepúlveda since her decision became public. Sepúlveda appeared on television smiling and laughing as she dined at a local restaurant this month — despite her grim prognosis.

“All patients are capable of improving … this is part of the analysis that should be made … to evaluate a patient’s condition,” Fredy Quintero, a manager with Incodol, told Colombia’s Caracol News.

The July court ruling has divided Colombia. Church officials have described euthanasia as a “serious offense” to the dignity of human life; a member of the national bishops’ conference urged Sepúlveda to “calmly reflect” on her decision and invited all Catholics to pray that God would grant her mercy.

The country’s health ministry, responding to the news that Sepúlveda’s procedure had been canceled, said a patient without a terminal diagnosis cannot be authorized for euthanasia because the constitutional court has not yet released its complete ruling on the matter. That claim was quickly disputed by legal experts, who said court rulings take effect immediately.

Sepúlveda’s 22-year-old son released video statements through his mother’s lawyers on Sunday, saying the “irregular” actions by the health provider happened only after the “viralization” of the news of his mother. Federico Redondo Sepúlveda called for an investigation into the actions of the health provider. “We should not tolerate this,” he said.

“It’s not just the rights of Martha Sepúlveda,” he said. “The rights of many other people that submit to these kinds of procedures, before these kinds of institutions, could also be eventually violated.”

“This circumstance brought my mom back to her previous state of desperation and sadness, and there’s nothing that can change that,” he said, adding that his mother has returned to having a “huge worry” about the future.

“We’re open to having this fight for the dignity of my mother,” he said. “My mom’s fight is the fight of thousands of people.”

Pannett reported from Sydney. Diana Durán contributed to this report.

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