Portugal’s high court rejects euthanasia law

Portugal’s Parliament voted to legalise euthanasia and assisted suicide in January. But this week, the Constitutional overturned the law because it was “imprecise”.

Last month, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa asked the court to evaluate the law – a step which he can take under Portugal’s constitution.

On Monday, a split court agreed that the bill lacked "the necessary rigour" and rejected it. The vote was 7 to 5. It ruled that the bill was imprecise in identifying the circumstances under which assisted suicide procedures can occur and defining "extreme suffering".

The rules on when euthanasia can be granted must be "clear, precise, clearly envisioned and controllable," the judges added. However, it left the door open to euthanasia provided that the legislation was better drafted. The governing Socialist Party will probably redraft and resubmit the bill.

In fact, this development does not look like a victory for opponents of euthanasia and assisted suicide.

The Article 24 (1) of the Portuguese constitution declares that the inviolability of human life. Nonetheless, the judges said, this “does not constitutes an insurmountable obstacle”.

"The right to life cannot be transfigured into a duty to live under any circumstances," said the president of the court, João Pedro Caupers.

A press release explained: “The conception of a person in a democratic society, which is secular and plural from the ethical, moral and philosophical points of view, is the one that the Constitution of the Portuguese Republic embraces. This gives legitimacy to the tension between a duty to protect life and a respect for personal autonomy and in extreme situations of suffering it can be resolved by means of political-legislative options … such as the anticipation of medically assisted death at the request of the person himself.”

As Yogi Berra used to say, "It ain't over 'til it's over". For better or for worse, it is likely that Portugal is still steaming ahead towards legalised euthanasia.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge   

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