Portugal’s euthanasia bill has been declared unconstitutional by the country’s top court.
Parliament initially approved five proposed laws on euthanasia in February 2020, these were then streamlined into a single bill which was approved by the house and sent to the President, who had the option of signing it outright, vetoing it or sending it to the constitutional court. He chose the latter, asking the judges to look specifically at issues with the terminology.
Pro-euthanasia parties – mostly left-wing, with the notable exception of the Communist Party, which has come out firmly against euthanasia – ignored the opinions of every expert organisation in approving the law, including the doctors’, nurses’ and lawyers’ guilds and the ethics committee.
In a verdict, the judges decided that, as it stands, the bill violates the constitution. Crucially, however, the court said that it was not the concept of euthanasia itself that was unconstitutional, but the vagueness of terms such as “permanent and serious injury”, that the bill included as a pre-condition for euthanasia. Four of the seven judges who voted with the majority, however, wrote a separate opinion claiming that euthanasia does, in fact, violate the right to life.
The response on the part of the Catholic bishops and other organisations that actively campaigned to have the bill rejected, was of guarded enthusiasm, therefore, as the pro-euthanasia political parties claimed they would look at the bill again and weed out the troublesome parts, so that it can pass muster, stressing the fact that the court had actually said that euthanasia itself does not necessarily violate the constitutional right to life.
This may not be so simple, however. Speaking to Renascença, Portugal’s church-owned radio, the head of the Catholic University’s Law Faculty said that “if it was easy” to avoid vague terms such as the above “they would have done it in the first place”. Further, said Jorge Pereira da Silva, even if the President decides not to send a new version of the bill to the Court, all it takes is 23 members of parliament to do so and if that happens there are many other parts of the law that the judges could take issue with.
The end result could be that the proposal gets stuck in technicalities. A similar hitch in the bill that would have legalised surrogacy in Portugal has still to be solved by Parliament three years later, and does not seem any closer to being resolved.