President of the Constitutional Court João Pedro Caupers reads out the majority decision to veto. Image: Manuel de Almeida/ Lusa

Constitutional Court vetoes text on ‘euthanasia’ for second time

Stumbling block includes “intolerable definition” over “suffering” 

Portugal’s Constitutional Court (TC) has for the second time vetoed the decree law regulating medically-assisted death.

This means President Marcelo “will have to veto the diploma and return it to parliament”, explains Lusa, as political voices are already saying “enough is enough, it is time for this issue to be put to a national referendum”.

Certain media sources believe the interminable ping-pong over euthanasia (this is the 3rd time a draft law has been approved by parliament, only to fall at the final stage) is testament of “a kind of juridical battle between the two powers” (meaning the Courts and Parliament).

The decision is all the more frustrating for law-makers in that it was not even consensual: seven judges ruled against it, six were in favour. The fundamental argument being an “intolerable indefinition” over the concept of suffering.

As reports explain: “By characterising suffering on the basis of three characteristics: “physical”, “psychological” and “spiritual”, all linked by the conjunction “and”, the law has created doubt among judges as to whether it is necessary for the suffering to be simultaneously “physical”, “psychological” and “spiritual” for euthanasia to be invoked, or whether it is sufficient for the suffering to have only one of those aspects”.

This doubt “allows possible and plausible interpretative alternatives to be legitimately drawn, which lead to conflicting practical results”, says the court. 

Counsellor João Pedro Caupers exemplified this divergence: “The question at issue is whether or not a patient diagnosed with cancer with the prognosis of a very limited life expectancy, or a patient suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis who is not physically suffering (commonly understood as pain), has access to medically-assisted death that is not punishable…”

To so many this is a question of semantics, if not navel gazing.

PS MP Isabel Moreira has taken the news stoically, saying “we will correct” the offending text; Iniciativa Liberal is also up for a 4th redraft, while right wing CHEGA and centre right PSD have more or less thrown up their hands and said: “It’s time to take this decision to the people…”

To be fair, the Constitutional Court has been making an enormous song and dance over this legislation which has already been accommodated by neighbouring Spain, which took less than 18 months over the whole process.

Italy however has shown how even a referendum can be stymied by the courts.

As Wikipedia explains: “In February 2022, the Constitutional Court denied a request to hold a referendum on the decriminalization of euthanasia after a petition signed by over a million people asked for it”.

So far in Europe, medically-assisted death is legal in Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Sweden and Switzerland. Other countries, like Finland/ France/ Germany/ Ireland/ UK have different permutations of forms of ‘passive euthanasia’ (involving the withdrawing of treatment/ keeping terminally ill patients sedated until death, etc.).

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