The Portuguese Parliament approved, on Friday afternoon (29), the final version of the law which decriminalizes euthanasia. With this decision, the country becomes the fourth in Europe, and the seventh in the world, to legalize medical assistance in dying.
To enter into force, the law now depends on the assent of the President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. The fact that the head of state is a practicing Catholic and has advocated pro-life measures on previous occasions is prompting speculation about a possible presidential veto.
In February 2020, Portuguese deputies had already given the green light to euthanasia, with the approval of five bills on the subject. The vote now consolidates the final text.
The approved law is quite restrictive. Only those over 18, Portuguese or foreigners legally residing in Portugal, can resort to assisted death.
The procedure is only authorized for patients “in a situation of intolerable suffering”, with definitive serious injury or incurable and fatal illness. Mental illnesses are not eligible for euthanasia in Portugal.
Requests must be assessed by at least two physicians, including a specialist in the disease that justifies the request for euthanasia. If the decision is favorable, the case is referred to a verification and bioethics commission.
Patients are also required to reiterate, more than once, the desire for assisted dying.
The assisted dying process is immediately interrupted if the patient falls into a coma before its completion and can only be resumed if there is a return to consciousness.
One of the people in charge of drafting the final text of the euthanasia law, MEP and lawyer Isabel Moreira (Socialist Party) says that the many requirements and steps in the assisted dying process are useful.
“It is a complex and safe procedure, so it cannot be done lightly, otherwise there would be a violation of the constitution. There is a lot of care in the law that the person makes the decision in a very specific situation, ”he said.
To ensure compliance with the rules, the law requires the creation of the Committee for the verification and evaluation of clinical procedures for the anticipation of deaths, which includes professionals from the medical, legal and bioethics fields.
As with the legalization of abortion, healthcare professionals have the right to declare conscientious objectors and not to participate in euthanasia procedures.
After the vote, several parliamentarians spoke out against euthanasia.
Congressman António Filipe (Portuguese Communist Party) warned of the possible social consequences of assisted dying, saying there was a fear of “trivializing the use of euthanasia”.
Leader of the right-wing conservative CDS-PP, MP Telmo Correia criticized what he sees as an abandonment of those who suffer, and declared that “euthanasia is a defeat for everyone”.
The main opposition party, the center-right PSD (Social Democratic Party), gave its MPs the freedom to vote. Although legendary frontman Rui Rio voted in favor of the project, most of the group were against it.
In 2018, in a legislature with fewer members on the left, a bill on euthanasia was disapproved by only five votes apart.
With the renewal of Parliament and the definition that ending the approval of assisted dying with the current composition of the benches would be inevitable, there was pressure to hold a referendum. The possibility was ultimately rejected by the deputies.
“We understand that these issues should not be the subject of a referendum, they are very complex issues with fundamental rights. It is a very complex question of penal policy, which implies a contraction of fundamental principles and rights, it is not easy to answer with yes or no. It does not seem to us that the dignity and the autonomy of the people must be approved ”, declares the socialist deputy Isabel Moreira.
According to her, the subject of euthanasia is much less controversial for Portuguese society than abortion. Voluntary termination of pregnancy was decriminalized in Portugal in 2007, after a referendum.
“Portuguese society is completely at peace with the issue of medical assistance in dying. The opinion studies available to us show that the vast majority of the Portuguese population is in favor, ”he adds.
Although less noisy than when abortion was legalized, protests against euthanasia continue to take place.
This week, a group of 21 Portuguese mayors launched a manifesto against the law. Among the signatories, coming from different political backgrounds, are some considered to have significant political weight, such as Rui Moreira (Porto) and Carlos Carreiras (Cascais).
Euthanasia was also not supported by the Order of Physicians (entity that regulates professionals in the country), which spoke out against assisted dying, which would violate medical ethics and the code of professional ethics.
During the presentation of the original projects, the CNECV (National Council for Ethics in Life Sciences) also issued a negative opinion, “to understand that they do not constitute an ethically acceptable response to safeguard the rights of all and decisions of each at the end of life, without taking into account or valuing the various principles, rights and interests present, which must be protected and reaffirmed ”, justifies the body.
The comfortable approval score – with 136 votes in favor, 78 against and 4 abstentions – is seen as an incentive for presidential sanction.
Even in the event of possible objections from Belém Palace, Parliament can vote to overturn a presidential veto. This requires two thirds of the 230 deputies.
It is also possible that Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa will send the law for evaluation by the Constitutional Court, a higher collegial body that has the power to declare the project unconstitutional, which would make its implementation unworkable.
Although TC judges are seen to be rather left-wing, a possible assessment of the euthanasia law is seen as unpredictable by experts.