If the President promulgates the law, Portugal will be the 4th country in Europe to legalise euthanasia however a Medical Association has said that is not the best time to be discussing this highly emotive issue.
The bill, approved by parliament, provides that medically assisted death can be requested by a national citizen or resident “over 18 years old, who has manifested their will in reiterated times, in an informed, free and consciousness way, in a situation of intolerable suffering, with definitive injury of extreme severity in accordance with scientific consensus or incurable and fatal disease”.
The patient will always be able to change their decision and stop the process and, if for any reason, they lose consciousness the euthanasia will be automatically suspended.
The process involves a lot of specialists: a verification and evaluation committee to assure the compliance with the law; a doctor chosen by the patient, a specialist in the patient’s illness and a psychiatrist to make sure if the patient is able to make decisions. Remember that no doctor can be obligated to participate in euthanasia – they can always invoke their conscientious objection.
Until now in Portugal, assisted death is not classified as a crime with that name, but its practice can be punished by three articles of the Criminal Code: privileged homicide, homicide at the victim’s request, and crime of incitement or suicide aid. The maximum penalty can be up to five years in prison.
However, there are some groups who are against this legalisation and have already made their objections known, including catholic priests at Portuguese Episcopal Conference. “We cannot accept that the death caused is a response to illness and suffering. To accept that is to give up fighting and alleviate suffering and conveys the wrong idea that a life marked by illness and suffering does not deserve protection and becomes a burden for oneself, for those around them, for health services and for society as a whole”, said the Portuguese bishops in a statement.
Euthanasia dependant on Presidents decision
Now, it is up to the re-elected president to give the final word on the law. Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa is a Catholic person and his personal convictions might be contrary to the approval of this new norm. He is yet to announce his decision.
The Portuguese President of Republic has the power of veto and promulgation after the approval of parliament. This means that he still can exercise his power of veto to stop the legalisation of euthanasia.
This can take place in two possible ways. The president may exercise his political veto, which needs to be justified and the law then returns to parliament. In which case parliament may approve the bill again and it will come into force, no matter the President’s opinion. He can also apply his legal veto, this means he has a suspicion of unconstitutional acts and in this case the constitutional court will investigate the compliance of this rule with the Portuguese Fundamental Law, namely relating to article 24º that says that Human Life is inviolable.
Where is euthanasia legal?
Besides Portugal, euthanasia has already been legalised, with some legal differences, in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. In Spain a law was passed in December 2020, but a Senate vote is expected, which could happen in the first quarter of 2021.
In Switzerland, the practice of euthanasia (death assisted by health professionals) is prohibited, but since 1940 the law has allowed assisted suicide. The difference is that in assisted suicide it is the patient who gives themselves the lethal medicine.
In Canada and in five states in the United States - Oregon, Vermont, California, Washington and Montana - euthanasia is also decriminalised. The same is also true in two South American countries: Uruguay and Colombia.
In Australia this practice is allowed in the State of Victoria and in October 2020 New Zealand voted, in a referendum, in favour of decriminalisation.
“An inopportune moment to decide on Euthanasia”
According to Carlos Diogo Cortes, president of the Regional Council of the Center of the Medical Association many people confuse concepts such as dysthanasia, orthothanasia and euthanasia: “From our point of view there is a lack of information for public opinion and for those who decide, (Assembly of the Republic), because there are technical aspects related to euthanasia” that people misunderstand, he said.
“Many people think that euthanasia is to let a person die when they are in a state where they have no capacity to maintain life, and there are professionals who keeping people alive beyond what would be correct, forcing these people to live based on technical processes, but this is not euthanasia”, explained Carlos Diogo Cortes, noting that keep a person alive using technical processes (Dysthanasia) is not allowed in Portugal.
Additionally, the medical association considers that the timing of the approval wasn’t the correct one. “At the moment all opinions are focused on a public health problem that is Covid-19 and combating the pandemic. So, it is an absolutely inopportune moment for the Assembly of the Republic to decide on an issue that divides so many opinions without an opportunity for a serious debate”.
Despite not agreeing with the timing, the Medical Association does not speak in single voice in a position on euthanasia. “There are professionals who agree and there are others who are against euthanasia”, said Carlos Diogo Cortes to The Portugal News.