Health minister reacts to suspected mercy killing, ruling out any legalization of euthanasia

Illustrative photo: Barbora Kmentová

Murder charges filed against a nurse suspected of aiding the death of a terminally-ill patient at a hospital in Rumburk, has refocused attention on the issues of euthanasia, palliative health care, and controls in the health sector. On Sunday, the health minister pushed for improvements in the latter, while making clear he was not in favour of euthanasia under any circumstances.

Svatopluk Němeček,  photo: Filip Jandourek
Social Democrat Health Minister Svatopluk Němeček has made clear that euthanasia for terminally-ill patients in the Czech Republic is nowhere near being accepted as legal practice. Speaking on a TV debate programme, he described human life as sacred and needed to be approached as such, making abundantly clear the Czech Republic will not follow the example of countries such as Belgium or the Netherlands where – under strict conditions and specific circumstances – euthanasia is legal, most often in cases where patients suffer enormous pain. Here is what the health minister had to say:

“I am not a supporter of euthanasia. I think it crosses a barrier which exists in our civilisation where human life is sacred, and I think that is how it should be approached. On the other hand, it is true that we have major shortcomings in palliative care. There needs to be greater support for hospices, for example... The route I think we need to take is in medicine which is capable of dulling or easing patient’s suffering. Euthanasia is a step in the wrong direction.”

Illustrative photo: Barbora Kmentová
The debate over a patient’s right to die in cases where there is no hope of recovery and suffering is intolerable was renewed after police pressed murder charges on Friday against a nurse at a hospital in Rumburk, who allegedly played a role in the death a 70-year-old cancer patient. Details there are still emerging but the hospital filed criminal charges against her after seeing reason for suspicion and is reviewing the nurse’s actions in the cases of others. The former health minister Leoš Heger stressed at the weekend, meanwhile, that the Rumburk case had nothing to do with euthanasia as such.

“From what I know, what happened there was something very different... In countries where euthanasia is allowed it takes place under a completely different set of circumstances and follows set procedures. Under our legal code, this was a criminal offence and the two matters are completely separate.”

Rumburk hospital,  photo: CTK
The revelation has led the Health Ministry to push for greater controls over state as well as private facilities, namely the creation of a committee on a national level it lacks the ability to form now: such as a committee could react to suspicious cases, possible malpractice or wrongful death. While the health minister suggested that cases such as the one in Rumburk were rare or extreme, some in the medical profession take the view that mercy killings in hospital wards may be not be as uncommon as most think – supporting tighter controls in health facilities as a good idea.