Portuguese assembly advances euthanasia bill

LISBON, PORTUGAL, 25 February 2020—World Youth Alliance is deeply concerned by a vote that took place Thursday, 20 February, in which the Portugal’s legislature, the Republican Assembly, advanced legislation to legalise euthanasia and assisted suicide. Next step is for a parliamentary committee to consolidate the five similar proposals into one bill before it can be considered for adopted as a whole.

The bill’s provisions

The ruling Socialist Party’s bill, similar to the others, would allow euthanasia for patients over 18 years of age who are “in a situation of extreme suffering, with an untreatable injury or a fatal and incurable disease.” Although this seems like a strong limitation, in practice this has proven elastic. The U.S. state of Oregon, for example, has such an expansive interpretation of what constitutes a terminal illness that it includes conditions which with treatment would be manageable and chronic rather than terminal. Belgium’s 2002 law, offered with similar limitations, has in practice seen a shift in focus to almost solely on suffering, including psychological suffering.

Under the bill, two doctors, at least one of them a specialist in the relevant illness, and a psychiatrist would need to sign off on the patient’s request to die. The case would then go to a Verification and Evaluation Committee, which could approve or turn down the procedure. Oversight is provided by the General-Inspectorate for Health. To discourage people from traveling to Portugal to end their life, the bills all stipulate that patients must either be Portuguese citizens or legal residents.

The process is postponed if is legally challenged, or if the patient loses consciousness, and health practitioners could refuse to perform the procedure on moral grounds. The Hippocratic Oath, a code of ethics that all medical doctors in Portugal take when graduating and follow throughout their professional practice, states: “[never] will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course”. The Socialist Party’s bill demands that the doctor’s conscientious objection is justified and communicated to the patient in a maximum of 24 hours.

Not the first time euthanasia considered

The 230-seat Republican Assembly narrowly rejected a similar proposal to legalise euthanasia by five votes two years ago. At the time, the major parties allowed their representatives to vote according to their consciences in a free vote, and some diverged for the party line in the final vote on a bill that has nearly the same provisions as the current proposals. However, although euthanasia was not a major part of any of the parties’ platform in the October general election, the constitution of the parliament is now different than two years ago and the proposals have this time been advanced with majority margins of between 28 and 41 votes, the members voting one after another in alphabetical order, a method usually used only for landmark votes.

Possible challenges to enacting the law

The process of adopting the law is far from over, and there were protests outside the Parliament during the vote. President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who is known to be reluctant about euthanasia, could veto the new law, but parliament can override his veto by simple majority vote. He also could ask the Constitutional Court to review the legislation. Portugal’s Constitution states that human life is “inviolable”, although abortion has been legal in the country since 2007.

There is also a possibility of a referendum on the issue; however, the majority of the parliament members believe that the Assembly has the capacity and legitimacy to take this decision and that public consultation is not needed. According to the law, a referendum can be requested by parliamentary groups, the government or citizen groups, who have already started collecting signatures. Then the Constitutional Court would analyse the request and the final decision is up to the President.

WYA urges members and policymakers to reject the bill.

The inalienable and intrinsic human dignity that every person possesses does not diminish because of illness or suffering. Euthanasia and assisted suicide are portrayed as acts of compassion and yet they require little of society, least of all sharing in the suffering of our most vulnerable at the final moments, when they end their lives by themselves. Our White Paper on the topic provides evidence about the illusory nature of many similar laws’ restrictions, and the serious and unavoidable risks of permitting the practice. It also proposes effective alternatives, such as studies that suggest that effective palliative care interventions can lead to a significant number of patients changing their minds about assisted suicide. WYA urges its members to raise awareness on the issue and calls on Portuguese policymakers to reconsider this bill in light of the serious consequences of adopting such a law.