After a long battle, Portugal on Friday passed a law legalizing euthanasia for people suffering from incurable diseases, joining only a few countries around the world.
The issue has divided the deeply Catholic country and has seen strong opposition from conservative President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, a devout churchgoer.
Under its provisions, people over the age of 18 are allowed to request assistance in dying if they are terminally ill and in unbearable suffering.
It will only cover those suffering from “chronic” and “intolerable” pain unless they are deemed mentally unfit to make such a decision.
The law applies only to nationals and legal residents and does not extend to foreigners who come to the country to seek assisted suicide.
The euthanasia bill has been approved by parliament four times in the past three years but has been returned each time for a constitutional review due to the opposition of the president.
The definitive version of the law was adopted on Friday with support from the governing Socialists, who hold an absolute majority in the chamber.
“We are confirming a law that has already been approved several times with a large majority,” said Socialist MP Isabel Moreira, a passionate advocate of legalizing euthanasia.
The president now has one week to promulgate the new law. It could be implemented in the fall, Portuguese media said.
“We have finally reached the end of a long war,” Moreira told AFP earlier this week.
The debate continues
Rebelo de Sousa vetoed earlier bills because of “too vague concepts” and later said the language used to define terminal conditions continues to be contradictory and needs to be clarified.
The new version of the law now provides that euthanasia is only permitted in cases where “medically assisted suicide is impossible due to the physical disability of the patient”.
Rebelo de Sousa asked the legislators to determine who will “testify” when a patient is physically unable to help commit suicide but the legislators this time refused to change the text.
The questions raised by the president can be answered by implementing the orders, said Catarina Martins, the leader of the far-left Bloc.
Rebelo de Sousa himself said that the approval of the law “is not a good drama” and does not present “constitutional problems”.
The debate about medically assisted dying is far from over in Portugal.
“The adoption of this law is relatively fast compared to other major countries,” said Paulo Santos, a member of the pro-euthanasia group Right To Die With Dignity.
He warned many doctors who may raise moral objections to performing euthanasia, as they did to abortions in 2007.
“There is a good chance that euthanasia will lead to stronger resistance,” he told AFP.
For their part, critics of medical assisted dying regret that the issue was not put to a referendum and hope that the opposition representatives will again ask the constitutional court to review the bill.
Euthanasia and assisted suicide are only allowed in a few countries, including the Benelux countries and Portugal’s neighbor, Spain.