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Portugal: Euthanasia bill rejected as unconstitutional

The Constitutional Court in Portugal has rejected as unconstitutional a euthanasia bill approved by its parliament in January.

The law, passed in January this year, required the approval of the President to enter into force. The President asked the Constitutional Court to review the legislation and, on Monday 15th March, the judges at the Court rejected the legislation as unconstitutional.

In a 7:5 ruling, the judges effectively agreed with President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa’s assessment that the legislation contained “excessively undefined concepts.” The judges declared that the rules on when euthanasia can take place must be “clear, precise, clearly envisioned and controllable.” The euthanasia legislation lacked “the necessary rigour” and failed to meet these requirements.

The Bill was initially approved in the Portuguese Parliament in January this year, and permitted people over the age of 18 to request euthanasia if they were terminally ill and suffering from “lasting” and “unbearable” pain. The law did not apply to those who were deemed to be mentally unfit to make such a decision.

Judge Pedro Machete told a news conference the law was unconstitutional because some of the clauses posed a threat to the principle of “inviolability of life”.

The legislation now returns to the Portuguese Parliament for subsequent review.

Expanding euthanasia law

Other European countries that have legalised euthanasia have seen a steady expanding of the practice. Belgium legalised euthanasia in 2002, and since then the practise has even been extended to children. The current law allows euthanasia if the patient is in a state of constant physical or psychological pain.

There is now a renewed push in Belgium for euthanasia to be available for those who are healthy but have decided they have lived a “fulfilled life”.

In 2018 there were a total of 2,357 reported assisted suicides in Belgium, up from 2,309 in the previous year. Between 2010 and 2018 there has been a 247% increase in reported assisted suicides.

Earlier this year, a Dutch doctor escaped prosecution despite having euthanised a patient with dementia against her express wish. The Dutch government has also said it would be changing the regulations to allow doctors to end the lives of terminally ill children between the ages of one and twelve.

Right To Life UK spokesperson, Catherine Robinson, said: “The euthanasia legislation in Portugal, which, thankfully, failed to pass, uses ‘unbearable’ pain as the criteria and partial justification for the practice. This is typical of euthanasia legislation and could eventually lead to its expansion. Why, after all, would we limit euthanasia only to those who are terminally ill and over 18 if they are otherwise in ‘unbearable’ pain? Children and adults can be in ‘unbearable’ pain without being terminally ill. If the justification for euthanasia lies in being in ‘unbearable’ pain then, it seems unfair to limit euthanasia to only those who are terminally ill”.

“This is exactly this kind of reasoning which has led both Belgium and the Netherlands to expand its euthanasia laws since their inception. As a matter of fact, this was very likely to happen but as a matter of principle, this is likely inevitable”.

“Furthermore, the reasoning in favour of euthanasia in the legislation in Portugal can be contrasted with the actual evidence. A recent report from the Oregon Health Authority, for example, showed only slightly more than a quarter of those who died by assisted suicide in Oregon listed “inadequate pain control, or concern about it” as one of their end of life concerns. Far more significantly a full 94.3% of patients were concerned with being “[l]ess able to engage in activities making life enjoyable”. 93.1% were concerned with “losing autonomy” and “loss of dignity” was a concern of 71.8% of patients”.

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MPs will shortly vote on proposed changes to the law, brought forward by Labour MPs Stella Creasy and Diana Johnson, that would introduce the biggest change to our abortion laws since the Abortion Act was introduced in 1967.

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