Germany's top criminal court issued a landmark ruling Friday legalizing assisted suicide in cases where it is carried out based on a patient's prior request.
The ruling came as the court overturned the conviction of a lawyer who had counseled his client in 2007 to stop tube feeding her mother, who had been in a non-responsive coma for five years. A lower court had convicted attorney Wolfgang Putz of attempted manslaughter and given him a nine-month suspended sentence.
The Federal Court of Justice said the 71-year-old woman had said in 2002 that she did not want to be kept alive under such circumstances before falling into the coma.
German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger welcomed the ruling as a major step toward respecting an individual's wishes. "There can't be forced treatment against a person's will," she said in a statement. "This is about the right of self-determination and therefore a question of a life in human dignity until the end."
Germany took political steps to clarify the legal situation surrounding assisted suicide late last year.
Parliament passed a law that made people's declarations on whether they wanted treatment to prolong their life following an accident or when terminally ill binding for doctors.
But the court ruling now makes it legal to end a person's life by halting medical treatment, if it is their wish.
In the case considered, the 71-year-old woman fell into a coma after a cerebral hemorrhage in October 2002. Confined to a nursing home, she was fed through a tube for five years.
"An improvement of her health situation was not to be expected anymore," the court said.
But the nursing home refused to let the woman die.
The woman's daughter eventually cut the feeding tube on her lawyer's advice, with her brother and the attorney present. The nursing home reinstalled a new tube shortly thereafter, but the woman died two weeks later "of natural causes," the court said.
A state court in Fulda acquitted the woman's daughter as she was acting on the advice of her lawyer, a specialist in medical law. The attorney, however, was convicted in April 2009 and then appealed to the high court.
The court did not release the names of the 71-year-old patient or her daughter.
Across Europe, authorities are struggling to find an answer to the morally charged question of how to end a terminally ill patient's life in dignity and in accordance with the law.
Switzerland has one of the most liberal laws that allows assisted suicide, even though they are coming under increasing public scrutiny as scores of foreigners every year travel to Switzerland to take their lives.
The Swiss government last year proposed restricting so-called "suicide tourism," and a law is due to be sent to parliament later this year.
The Netherlands legalized euthanasia in 2002, requiring the agreement of several doctors that a patient is suffering greatly with no hope of recovery, and has asked to die. Similar regulation is in place in Sweden, Denmark and Finland.
But assisted suicide is illegal in Finland, Spain, France and in Italy, where the influence of the Vatican is still strongly felt.
Following a controversial case in which a family ended the life of a girl who had been in a vegetative status for 17 years, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government last year introduced legislation banning caregivers from taking such action.
Associated Press Writers Eliane Engeler in Geneva, Toby Sterling in Amsterdam, Colleen Barry in Milano and Christina Okello in Paris contributed to this report.