Portugal became, Friday, January 29, the fourth country in Europe to legalize euthanasia, after the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium. Unsurprisingly, the law on “Medically assisted death”, summary of five euthanasia bills previously approved in February 2020, was voted by a large majority, 136 votes in favor, 78 against, and 4 abstentions. The Socialist Party (PS) and the Social Democratic Party (PSD), the main opposition party, had left the freedom to vote to their deputies, which resulted in the vote “against” of nine of the 108 deputies socialists and “for” fourteen of the 79 deputies of the PSD.
The new law reserves euthanasia to residents of Portugal over the age of 18 who request it, provided that they are free from mental illnesses, and that they are in a ” situation of extreme suffering “, with some “Extremely serious injuries” or a ” Incurable disease “. The decision must also be validated by a committee made up of at least two doctors and a psychiatrist if there is “Doubts about the person’s capacity to ask for the anticipation of death concerning his serious, free and enlightened will”. Finally, it must be approved one last time by a doctor, in the presence of witnesses, at the time of the act. Euthanasia and assisted suicide can be practiced in public hospitals but also in private clinics.
Deep debate in society
For associations campaigning for a “Dignified death”, it’s a “Historic day”. The law ends sentences ranging from one to eight years in prison previously in force for those who help a person die. And comes to close a debate which agitated Portugal in recent years.
In a country where nearly 80% of the population defines itself as Catholic, the question of euthanasia has divided society since the presentation of a first text, in 2018, rejected by Parliament with only five votes apart. According to the last major survey on the subject, dated 2017, 43% of Portuguese supported euthanasia at the time, 28% opposed it and 22% were not sure of their opinion.
In February 2020, the Socialists, at the head of the government, and four other parties representing the radical left, the ecologists or the liberals, presented new texts in favor of assisted suicide and euthanasia which were merged in order to achieve the greatest possible consensus. The bill nonetheless sparked a deep debate in society and several protests.
“Atmosphere of great anxiety”
In early 2020, many politicians and public figures took a stand, including the national coach of the football team, Fernando Santos, who had questioned the legitimacy of the deputies to take such a decision. The Portuguese Life Federation (FPV), an ultracatholic association opposed to the right to euthanasia, as well as the Episcopal Confederation, tried to block the law by gathering nearly 100,000 signatures in favor of holding a referendum to decide the question. But in October, the popular initiative was rejected by parliament.
Thursday, January 28, the main opposition party, the Social Democratic Party (center right), through its spokesperson, Adao Silva, again asked to postpone the vote “Of a few weeks”, due to the pandemic “Which created an atmosphere of great anxiety” sure “The themes of life and death”. Without success. In fact, the health crisis has rather placed the debate in the background in recent months.
The President of the Republic, the practicing Catholic Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who until then has been discreet on the issue, has eight days to decide whether he promulgates the text, brings it before the Constitutional Court or exercises his right to veto, which would force Parliament to review the text again. In Spain, a similar law is expected to be approved in the spring.