February 26, 2024

Portugal on the brink of legalizing euthanasia

For the fifth time, Portugal’s parliament has approved a bill legalising euthanasia. It passed with a comfortable majority — 129 votes to 81.

The provisions of Portugal’s bill are similar to laws passed in Netherlands and Belgium in 2002. Those eligible must be over 18, must be suffering from an incurable disease, must be enduring “lasting” and “unbearable” pain, and must be a citizen or legal resident of Portugal.

The bill will only become law after President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa signs it – and he says that he will. “The Constitution obliges the President to promulgate a law that he vetoed and that was confirmed by the Assembly of the Republic (…) it is my constitutional duty,” he said. He had vetoed similar bills twice before and twice remitted them to the Constitutional Court which declared them unconstitutional.

Supporters of the bill welcomed it as a victory for compassion and choice. They argue that it will allow people to die with dignity and without pain. Opponents vowed to continue to fight. The centre-right PSD said that it will try to appeal the law to the Constitutional Court. This is possible if 10% of deputies request it.

Communist Party (PCP) deputies voted against the bill. Their leader, Paulo Raimundo, said that he had serious misgivings about legalised euthanasia. At a public forum, “More strength to the workers”, he said that what the country needed was better public health care. The PCP has consistently opposed euthanasia. One of its deputies explained its position in parliament last year:

Individual autonomy is something that must be respected, but an organized society is not a mere sum of individual autonomies. One cannot assume a legislative option on people’s life and death without taking into account the circumstances and social consequences of that option …

The Portuguese State cannot continue to deny many of its citizens the health care they need, particularly in times of greatest suffering. The creation of a palliative care network with a universal character must be an absolute priority. Nobody understands euthanasia as a substitute for palliative care and for the PCP there is an issue that is unavoidable: a country should not create legal instruments to anticipate death and help die when it does not guarantee material conditions to help live.

The Association of Portuguese Catholic Doctors (AMCP) was bitterly disappointed by the prospect of legalisation. “Today, Portugal is experiencing a black day in its history,” it declared. “We reiterate that euthanasia and assisted suicide are acts against Medicine itself, they are acts forbidden to doctors, they are not medical acts”.

Portugal has always been regarded as a solidly Catholic country, but the bill passed on the eve of one of Portugal’s most important religious feasts, Our Lady of Fatima. Speaking in Rome Pope Francis said, “I am very sad today. It is another step on the long list of countries with euthanasia.” He went on to say that euthanasia is “a grave sin against the sacredness of life.”