Portuguese President Requests Constitutional Review of Proposed Euthanasia Law

The bill would apply to patients over 18 who are “in a situation of extreme suffering, with an untreatable injury or a fatal and incurable disease.”

President of Portugal Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.
President of Portugal Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. (photo: DropofLight / Shutterstock)

LISBON, Portugal — Portugal’s president on Thursday requested a constitutional review of a recently-passed bill to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide in the country.

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa wrote Feb. 18 to the country’s Constitutional Court, laying out concerns that the proposed law, passed late last month, is vague enough as to not be in accord with the Portuguese constitution, which describes human life as “sacrosanct.”

The bill would apply to patients over 18 who are “in a situation of extreme suffering, with an untreatable injury or a fatal and incurable disease.”

He pointed to the bill’s provision that allows terminally ill adults experiencing “intolerable suffering” to end their own lives, and noted that it “seems to inculcate a strong dimension of subjectivity” and wondered how physicians were expected to measure pain as “intolerable.”

The question is not over the constitutionality of euthanasia, he wrote, but whether the specific regulation is in conformity with the constitution.

“It does not seem that the legislator provides the physician involved in the procedure with a minimally secure legislative framework that can guide his performance,” Rebelo de Sousa wrote.

“This insufficient normative densification does not seem to comply with the constitutional requirement regarding the right to life and human dignity, nor with the certainty of the Law.”

Rebelo de Sousa, a Catholic who was reelected in a landslide vote Jan. 24, is a former law professor who helped to draft Portugal’s constitution in 1976.

Portugal’s parliament passed the bill to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide Jan. 29 by a vote of 136-78-4.

Upon a bill’s passage the president has three options: giving the bill assent, sending it for review to the constitutional court, or employing his veto. Parliament can override a presidential veto by backing legislation a second time.

Portugal’s bishops expressed “sadness and indignation” at the bill’s passage.

They criticized both the content and the timing of the bill; the bishops were recently forced to suspend public Masses amid a surge in COVID-19 deaths.

“It is a contradiction to legalize death in this context, rejecting the lessons that this pandemic has given to us on the precious value of human life, which the community in general and health professionals in particular are trying to save with extraordinary efforts,” the bishops said Jan. 29.

If the bill is signed into law, Portugal will become the fourth country in Europe to legalize euthanasia, alongside the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Around 81% of Portugal’s 10 million population are baptized Catholics.

The bishops said that accepting the law would “convey the erroneous idea that life marked by illness and suffering no longer deserves protection and becomes a burden to oneself, to those around them, to health services and to society as a whole.”

They added: “The response to illness and suffering should rather be the protection of life, especially when it is more fragile, by all means, and especially by access to palliative care, which the majority of the Portuguese population is still deprived of.”

Portugal, while still a Catholic-majority country, has legalized same-sex marriage and abortion in the past several decades.

The Socialist Party, one of the left-of-center parties leading the charge to push the euthanasia legislation in Portugal, also led proposals to permit same-sex marriages and abortion in Portugal, the AP reports.

Portugal’s parliament failed to pass several proposals to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide in mid-2018.

When lawmakers began debating five pieces of legislation in February 2020 to decriminalize euthanasia and assisted suicide, doctors in the country joined with the Catholic Church in opposing the potential change.

The Portuguese Doctors' Association says the legislation violates key principles of the medical profession.

“Doctors learn to treat patients and save lives. They are not prepared to take part in procedures leading to death,” PDA president Miguel Guimaraes said after meeting with President Rabelo de Sousa.

Pro-life groups protested the euthanasia bills in the weeks leading up to the vote in Lisbon, where they held signs saying, “We demand palliative care for ALL” and “Euthanasia is a recipe for elder abuse.”

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