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Beatriz Gomez, a person who defied all conventional taboos and founded a right-to-die organization in Colombia – a Catholic country and herself a Catholic — has died. She was 84, and passed away peacefully and suddenly at her home in Bogotá on August 15, 2006.

Beatriz Kopp De Gomez single-handedly founded in 1979 the Fundacion Pro Derecho A Morir Dignamente (DMD) and it remained until this year the only such organization in South America. (Venezuela now has one.) She built it from tiny beginnings to an influential group with small staff and office that carried enormous respect from Colombia’s ruling elite and politicians. By the time of her death – still its president –DMD had more than 10,000 members.

She had come into the pro-choice movement earlier as a board member of the Family Planning Center of Colombia, and was also an executive member of the International Planned Parenthood Foundation.

At DMD’s 20th anniversary celebrations in 1999 the nation’s Minister of Health and other high officials attended, although the country does not recognize physician-assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia. So far as I could tell (I was there) they attended out of enormous respect for political clout and intellectual authority which Beatriz possessed.

Beatriz began attending the conferences of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies, starting at the Oxford meeting in 1980. Typical of her open and gutsy approach to the subject, she immediately introduced herself to me saying she had just defeated breast cancer. DMD was a charter member of the World Federation.

From 1984-86 Beatriz served on the board of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies, and never missed its biennial world conferences.

During the time she lived in New York in the 1970s, Beatriz was active in the Society for the Right to Die and served on the board of Concern for Dying. (Both now closed.) Using that experience, she pioneered the use of Living Wills back in her home country.

In the 1960s Beatriz opened a school of ballet dancing in Bogotá which shocked the Catholic Establishment at the thought of scantily dressed girls performing in public. But Beatriz quickly disarmed the critics by inviting the Archbishop of Bogotá for coffee at her apartment and explained to him that there would be no bare flesh. Women ballet dancers traditionally wore tights and tutus. End of opposition.

In 1997 it seemed, amazingly, that Colombia would decriminalize active euthanasia. Magistrate Carlos Gavira Diaz coaxed the Constitutional High Court on which he then sat to go along. (Case # D-1490). The ruling said: “When presented with a demand to increase the penalty for mercy killing, the high Constitutional Court in Colombia declined, and instead declared the state could not outlaw assisted dying for a mentally competent, terminally ill adult, nor impose a penalty on one who aids that person out of mercy.”

The Catholic hierarchy in Colombia was shocked as the news zipped around the world. Beatriz and her DMD saw it as a victory but then things ground to a halt. Catholic politicians made sure that the Senate never approved the high court’s ruling, so it still stands, unconfirmed, on the books. Beatriz kept watch for a doctor who would assist a suicide in a justifiable case so that the law could be tested and, hopefully, confirmed in court. But today it still awaits a test case.

At the 2004 world conference in Tokyo, Beatriz was presented with the Marilyn Seguin Award in recognition of her more than 30 years of work in the movement. Frail and loosing her sight due to macular degeneration, Beatriz was guided to Tokyo by her daughter Milena. She immediately donated her prize of $2,000 back to her beloved DMD.

She is survived by two sisters, one son, three daughters and seven grandchildren.

Beatriz Gomez asked for a Roman Catholic religious funeral service, at which Mozart’s Requiem was played, and her body was cremated.

Rarely comes such another.

Derek Humphry 09.02.06

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