Already in January of this year, the former Chief Physician at Odense University Hospital, Svend Lings, has been sentenced to 60 days conditionally in prison for having participated in assisted dying. This sentence was given by the Eastern High Court, in reaction to the appeal of Lings against the judgment of the district court to give him 40 days conditional imprisonment.
What happened before
In February 2017 the retired doctor Svend Lings was interviewed on Radio 24syv. He said that he and the group “Doctors for Active Death Assistance” had helped at least ten people end their lives. In reaction to this radio interview (and other press statements on radio and TV), the health authorities confiscated in March 2017 Dr Lings authorization and reported him to the police. Subsequently the police charged him with involvement in suicide. In September 2018 the district court found Dr Lings guilty in assisted dying in two cases and sentenced him to 20 days of conditional prison per case (40 days in all). A friend, who had written out a prescription for one of his patients, got 14 days conditionally.
Dr Lings appealed the verdict. The prosecutor Jesper Rubow then argued for a tightening of the court’s verdict to one year’s imprisonment. He called it the most cruel case of involvement in suicide in Danish legal history and brought up a number of issues that he considered to be aggravating circumstances. In the Eastern High Court, the judgment was upheld, with the change that the sentence was lengthened from 40 to 60 days conditionally. This was due to the fact that now Dr Lings was held guilty in three cases (still 20 days per case). The co-accused former doctor/psychiatrist, Frits Schjøtt, also had his sentence for involvement in assisted dying increased from 14 days to 20 days conditional imprisonment.
Dr Lings never issued any prescription himself. However, article § 240 of the Danish penal code (so called ‘Straffeloven’) prohibits the mere contribution of a person in the suicide of another person (with a punishment of imprisonment for up to 3 years). The question in this lawsuit is: does advice and information fall under the definition of contribution to assisted suicide?
In 2015 Dr Lings wrote an article about assisted dying in the Danish medical journal (“Ugeskrift for Læger”) and suggested formation of a society for physicians. Only nine colleagues responded. They found this to be too few for a regular society and established an informal network instead. They still have discussions and support each other. In 2017 Lings published (on his website: www.egeskovforlag.dk, front page line 9, click “selvmordsvejledning” in blue) a guide to suicide, containing instructions as well as information about around 300 usable common drugs (all requiring doctor’s prescription though). This led to discussion and debate in society.
Freedom of speech
In reaction to this debate the Danish minister of justice Pape Poulsen declared to the parliament that the publication of the suicide guide was not illegal, and that it cannot be forbidden according to freedom of expression. Since then a lot of patients have contacted Dr Lings asking for help (it still happens every day). They always need to talk a lot. Lings final advices to them – in suitable cases – are built on the above mentioned guide. For that reason Dr Lings pleaded not guilty in this lawsuit. He believes the verdict goes against the right to freedom of speech: “How can you limit freedom of speech? If it is legal to write it on the Internet, then it is also legal to talk about it. That is what amazes me and that’s what I consider the important point”. Lings believes it is a human right for people to make decisions about their own lives. Even though he can understand why he might not be considered innocent in terms of the present Danish laws, for him it is a matter of principle: “In my view, I have only used my freedom of speech quoting a lawful source (the “selvmordsvejledning”) to the patients. I therefore plead “not guilty”.
Appeal to the Supreme Court
For now, Dr Lings and his lawyer are applying for appeal to the Supreme Court in Copenhagen.