Madrid arrest reopens euthanasia debate

Ángel Hernández during an interview in his home last Friday.
Ángel Hernández during an interview in his home last Friday. / Carlos Pérez / EFE
  • More than 80% of people in Spain approve of assisted suicide, while politicians and the Church adopt their positions with regard to death with dignity

  • Ángel Hernández recorded how he helped his terminally ill wife die last week to relieve her suffering

For the last three decades María José, 61, had suffered multiple sclerosis. She no longer had strength to move by herself and depended entirely on her husband, Ángel Hernández, 69, who retired eight years ago to care for her. They had decided that he would help her to die and that they would film their final moment together.

"My wife has needed a lot of care over the last years and it has been worse in recent months," said Hernández, who was arrested after María José's death for aiding suicide and later released on unconditional bail.

"[The last few months] have been terrible, she was very unsettled, she suffered a great deal. There was no way of helping and she was terrified of asking me to [help her die]. I said that if she didn't ask me, I couldn't do it," he explained.

That day, however, the couple went ahead with their plan.

"Well, María José, the moment you've been wishing for has come," he says on the video and she nods. "I'm going to lend you my hands... only because you can't [do it]."

"We had to do it in a way that people could see it," said Hernández. "It had to be documented to show that people suffer, really suffer."

According to the results of a survey revealed at the end of last week by the CSIC (Spain's Council for Scientific Research), between 72 and 88 per cent of the population of Spain is in favour of active voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide.

The day before the date chosen for María José's death they recorded another video in which she explicitly gives her consent.

The video continues: "First we're going to try with a little water." He offers her a cup with a drinking straw. "Because I don't know if you can swallow, you know? If we see that you can't we'll stop," we hear Ángel say.

"I seem calm, but inside I was like jelly," said Hernández in a TV interview. "I knew that once she passed away, I would no longer feel her, see her, listen to her or talk to her, but for me her suffering was stronger than that."

She puts out her lips in search of the end of the straw, sucks up the liquid and swallows. Ángel picks up a similar cup and holds it for her. This time it contains pentobarbital, the drug used to help people to die in countries where euthanasia is legal.

"It was my wife who found out about it and prepared everything so that, if the time came, she could do it," said Hernández. "She got the medication on internet."

With the lethal formula in his hands the video shows Hernández say: "It's not much but it might not taste nice. Are you sure?"

"Yes," she replies in a soft voice.

No relief from medicine

"The medication did nothing for her," Hernández explained. "I used to give her drops of concentrated morphine, every two hours. I was scared of giving her an overdose, if you can believe it. I didn't want her to die from morphine, because doctors had prescribed it and I didn't want to involve them," he said.

After María José's death hit the headlines doctors released a statement defending their palliative care and political parties stuck to the same positions they adopted months ago, when a euthanasia law was debated with no consequence.

Pedro Sánchez (PSOE) has promised to "regulate" euthanasia if he is elected in the coming general election; Albert Rivera (Cs) and Pablo Iglesias (Podemos) have called for a death with dignity law; Pablo Casado (PP) has kept out of it, not wanting the issue to creep into an election campaign.

No party spokesperson, however, called for a prison sentence for Hernández, who was arrested for manslaughter by aiding suicide when National Police officers turned up at the couple's apartment in the Moncloa-Aravaca district of Madrid on Wednesday last week.

On Thursday after he admitted the charges in front of a judge, he was released on unconditional bail.

"This has to serve to help the regularisation of euthanasia," said Hernández, aware that he has reopened a debate in which the Church is on the other side.

"Provoked death is never a solution to conflicts, not in the case of abortion or euthanasia or in any other situation," said the secretary general of the Spanish Episcopal Conference, Luis Argüello. "We must defend life, palliative care and oppose therapeutic harm."

The video shows how María José drinks the liquid; the astringent changes her face and she retches. The image skips to the point when her husband says: "Give me your hand, I want to feel the absence of your suffering," as he takes her right hand between his and holds it to his chest. "Don't worry, you'll soon fall asleep," he says, just before she dies.