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How to die in Colombia: A Constitutional dilemma


In 1997, Colombia’s Constitutional Court decriminalized the medical practice of euthanasia in patients with serious and incurable diseases which produce large physical suffering. Decision C-239 became one of the most radical advancements on the right to die debates in the world. At the time, European countries who have led this discussion, such as the Netherlands, hadn’t legalized and incorporated the right to access euthanasia into their own legal system. A few months ago, Colombia’s Constitutional Court also authorized the first legal clinical euthanasia in the country through a constitutional process also known as tutela. The plaintiff in action T-970 was 79-year old Ovidio Gonzalez, who decided to die at a clinic due to the suffering that he was experiencing while battling throat cancer.

In this paper, I analyze the reasonings behind Decision C-239 and the long pathway to its implementation in the first Latin American country to legalize euthanasia. I will also examine Decision T-970 and the unique features that made it a case capable of compelling high court judges of taking the leap towards full recognition of the right to die. My objective is to provide routes of constitutional strategic litigation for advocates in other countries, and to understand the role of high courts in shaping ethical debates such as euthanasia.

Estefania Palomino is a Colombian lawyer and global health law scholar. She has worked as a staff attorney at one of the largest law firms in Colombia, Brigard & Urrutia, served as a visiting professional at the inter-American Court of Human Rights, and co-founded her own public interest practice, IVO Legal. During 2014, she worked as a Global Health Corps (GHC) fellow at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, coordinating advocacy strategies around sexual and reproductive rights in more than 10 countries in Africa and Latin America. Her pro bono work covers a wide range of health and human rights issues: from individual constitutional actions that allow patients accessing treatment, to high profile regulatory efforts such as the drafting of the Executive Order for the Law on Rare Diseases in Colombia (Ley 1392 de 2010). Estefania holds an M.A in International Law and Settlement of Disputes from the United Nations University for Peace (Upeace) and she is currently an LL.M candidate in the Global Health Law program at Georgetown University Law School (GULC). During her academic career she has received multiple honors such as the Ciro Angarita Baron scholarship award by Universidad de Los Andes, the Peace-builders Fellowship award by Upeace, and the Global Health Law Scholar award by GULC. Last year, Estefania was selected as a Spotlight Health Aspen Ideas scholar and panelist, and as one of the 10 Young Leaders Who Are Creating A Better World by Johnson & Johnson and the Huffington Post.