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Woman’s voluntary death relaunches euthanasia debate in Spain

Granada, Spain – For more than two decades, Inmaculada Echevarria had
wanted to die.

The 51-year-old Spanish woman had suffered for 40 years from a muscular
dystrophy which gradually deprived her of all autonomy.

The disease forced her to give her son up for adoption after birth, and
left her bedridden for 20 years. Finally, she was only able to move her
facial muscles and fingertips.

When doctors disconnected Echevarria’s breathing machine in the southern
city of Granada on Wednesday evening, she undoubtedly passed away with a
sense of relief.

“To be free, you have to fight,” said Echevarria, who had defended her
right to die.

“At least I know that this will end, that I am going to be free,” she had
said after being told that the Andalusian regional government had
authorized her to refuse the treatment keeping her alive.

“My life is full of empty spaces, of silence,” she explained earlier.
“Loneliness is worse than the physical pain.”

Echevarria’s death relaunched a debate about euthanasia in Spain, where
the practice is illegal, but where several notorious cases of assisted
death have occurred in recent years.

Andalusian authorities took their decision after consulting an ethics
commission and a judicial organ, arguing that Echevarria’s case did not
constitute euthanasia, only a refusal of medical treatment.

Not allowing Echevarria to refuse an “unusual artificial means” keeping
her alive would have violated her autonomy as a patient, bioethics
professor Maria Dolores Vila-Coro said.

The case “opens the door to other sick people who want to demand their
rights within the limits of the law,” said the Association for the Right
to Die with Dignity.

Other experts, however, described Echevarria’s death as a clear case of

The plans to allow her to die had been met with protests by the Catholic
Church, with Cardinal Antonio Canizares criticizing them as an “attack
against dignity and human life.”

The church’s attitude prevented Echevarria from dying at the Catholic
hospital, where she had been bed-bound for a decade and where she had
wished to pass away.

Some hours before her death, Echevarria was moved to a secular public
hospital, a decision which Andalusian regional Prime Minister Manuel
Chaves attributed to the Vatican.

Echevarria’s case followed those of Madeleine Z, 69, an Alicante woman who
committed suicide in January before a degenerative disease left her
without autonomy, and of Jorge Leon, 53, a paralyzed man who launched an
internet appeal to find someone to help him die.

An unknown person disconnected Leon’s breathing machine in Valladolid last

The most famous case, however, has been that of Ramon Sampedro, a
paralyzed ship mechanic who fought for three decades for his right to die.

Sampedro’s friend Ramona Maneiro finally gave him a cyanide-laced drink in
1998. She confessed to having done so only after the statute of
limitations in the case had expired, making it impossible for the
judiciary to pursue her.

The Sampedro case provided the inspiration for the film The Sea Inside by
Alejandro Amenabar, which won an Oscar for best foreign- language film in

The successive cases of assisted death have maintained a lively debate
about euthanasia in Spain.

Pro-euthanasia activists and far-left parties have pressed Prime Minister
Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s Socialists to honour their election pledge
of establishing a parliamentary commission to discuss the possibility of
legalizing assisted death.

The Zapatero government has been reluctant to become a champion of
euthanasia in the Western world.

Euthanasia does not yet have a sufficient social backing in Spain, the
Socialists argue. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s Socialist
government has said that euthanasia is not on its agenda for the time

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