HHearing the laughter of Martha Sepúlveda in a Medellín restaurant, she seems to be the epitome of carefree joy. He stops between sips of beer to joke with his son, Federico Redondo, having a feast patacón – a local delicacy of fried green plantains – and envelops the establishment with its contagious joie de vivre.
If it weren’t for the presence of a news team, it would appear to be one more celebration. The special occasion? The imminent death of Mrs. Sepúlveda.
The procedure he refers to is euthanasia. On Sunday, the 51-year-old woman will be the 158th person to be euthanized in Colombia since it was legalized in 2015. Outside of the group, she will have the distinction of being the first non-terminal patient to receive it.
Nearly three years ago, Ms. Sepúlveda was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a degenerative condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which attacks the nervous system, weakens muscles, and severely impairs mobility. Has to recent statistics The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 16,000 people in the United States have ALS. In Ms. Sepúlveda’s native country, the number cases are around 2,500. A combination of therapy and medication can help relieve pain and discomfort, but there is no cure.
“I may be a coward, but I don’t want to suffer anymore,” says Ms. Sepúlveda, who has been dependent on a wheelchair since last year, adding that she has no more fighting left. “I have literally run out of strength. Fight for what? I’m struggling to rest, ”he continues, punctuating his comment with a characteristic laugh. She says that although she was hesitant at first, her 83-year-old mother supports her decision, as do her 11 siblings.
Not everyone shares his resignation.
The Episcopal Conference of Colombia, which is made up of all the bishops of the country’s dioceses, was among the first to react. The organization called for a national prayer chain and publicly condensed the election.
“In accordance with our deepest Christian convictions, death cannot be the therapeutic answer to pain and suffering in any case,” Monsignor Francisco Antonio Ceballos Escobar said in a video statement posted on Facebook. “Death resulting from assisted suicide or euthanasia is not compatible with our interpretation of dignified human life, unlike the use of palliative care.”
During the recorded letter, the cleric also criticized the press coverage of the case, which he described as a “type of euthanasia propaganda in a country already marked by violence.”
Catholicism run deep in Colombia, and its variant of the Roman Catholic religion is considered one of the most traditional and conservative in Latin America. A 2014 study from the Pew Research Center found that 79 percent of the population identifies as Catholic. Currently, the nation has the seventh largest Catholic population in the world.
Ms. Sepúlveda, who is also a Catholic, sees her elective departure as part of God’s plan.
“On a spiritual level, I am totally at peace,” he reiterated. “I am a Catholic, I consider myself a firm believer in God, but God does not want to see me or any other person in agony. No parent wants to see their children suffer. “
Still, it has been difficult to find someone in the church to confirm his conviction. He recently went to confession, but has not been able to convince a priest to perform the last rites preventively.
“They ask me why and my answer is always the same. Because I am suffering; because I believe in a God who doesn’t want to see me like this, ”says Ms. Sepúlveda. “The way I see it, God is allowing all of this … He is rewarding me in some way, because I will no longer be bedridden.”
His faith also informed his choice of the day to die.
“I chose to have it on Sunday since we all go to church that day,” he says. “From the beginning, I wanted him to land on a Sunday and have the whole process: cremation, delivery of the remains and the Eucharist on the same day. I don’t want to see it, as I feel that it amplifies people’s anguish. “
“The most humane route”
“Clearly there has been polarization,” said Ms. Sepúlveda’s attorney, Camila Jaramillo Salazar, during a recent interview with RPP Noticias. Acknowledging the “religious shock” attributed to her, she is grateful that the case has brought the conversation about a dignified death to the fore.
His client’s decision, he said, was not instinctive and was “pondered and pondered for several months.”
To access euthanasia, she was first evaluated by a medical committee, including a clinical psychologist who ruled out depression and coercion.
“It is the most humane route,” insisted Mrs. Jaramillo Salazar. “We all want to live and we all want to be healthy.”
When asked about her client’s mood, she summed it up like this: “She is happy, she is at peace, she is with her family and she is sure that she is making the right decision.”
It is a decision that Ms. Sepúlveda’s son, Federico, has accepted.
“I see it as the greatest act of love I will ever do, because I need my mom a priori and I want her to be by my side, ”the law student told Noticias Caracol. “Now I’m focused on making her happy, making her laugh, having fun with her, and making sure her stay on Earth, what’s left of her, is enjoyable.”
The 22-year-old’s latest social media posts attest to this.
On September 28, he tweeted a couple of photos of himself and his beaming mother.
“I’ll do anything for that smile,” he captioned the snapshots.
With information from Juan David Laverde / Noticias Caracol and Elmer Huerta / RPP Noticias