Portugal debates “right to die” as hospitals are slammed for “already assisting suicides”

As the country launches into a new debate on euthanasia and the “right to die with dignity”, the Resident has been given first-hand information on how the system is already assisting suicides in the worst possible way: by failing mentally ill patients when they are at their most vulnerable. By chance, we were approached by a reader with a harrowing story just as the whole euthanasia debate hit Portugal’s headlines.

But first to explain the situation so far. Last weekend, the taboo of euthanasia was thrust into Portugal’s spotlight with the publication of a no-nonsense manifesto signed by the country’s ‘movers and shakers’ – among them Portugal’s own director general of health, Francisco George.

Along with signatories including former justice minister Paula Teixeira da Cruz, the mayor of Porto Rui Rio, singer Sérgio Godinho and biochemistry researcher and doctor Sobrinho Simões – who Público says is described by his peers as the “most influential pathologist in the world” – George put his name to a document that defends the decriminalisation of assisted death.

Retired university lecturer Laura Ferreira dos Santos, one of the founders of the ‘Direito a morrer com dignidade’ (Right to die with dignity) movement, told the paper: “We managed to get people from various sectors in society and some very well-known. Thus, no one can say that supporters are a group of half a dozen radicals and lunatics. These people are cultured, well informed. They know palliative care exists” and still they have put their names to a call to legalise assisted death.

Público stresses that “assisted death includes euthanasia (the doctor administering a lethal chemical) and medically-assisted suicide (when the patient takes the chemical)”.

“It is a right of the patient that suffers and for whom there is no alternative to put an end to his suffering that he deems either acceptable or dignified,” adds the manifesto, describing assisted death is the “last liberty, the last wish which should not be denied anyone who knows they are condemned”.

Since the manifesto was published, political parties have joined the bandwagon, with some saying they would agree to a referendum while others (the Bloco de Esquerda particularly) want to go full-steam ahead with a legislative initiative.
According to BE MP José Manuel Pureza, his party has no date in mind yet for presenting its bid, but as “it concerns a fundamental right, we believe we have to give a response”.

BE’s zeal sees other parties saying they would welcome debate (PS), others welcoming a referendum (PSD) and some (CDS particularly) saying this is not a matter for politicians at all.

The CDS position was reinforced by the Catholic Church in Portugal – in the form of Lisbon’s Cardinal Patriarch D. Manuel Clemente – who came out with all guns blazing, saying the manifesto was the result of an “individualist (ie selfish) culture” spurred by depression.

Talking to Rádio Renascença, the country’s voice of Catholicism said: “These days, when people are sick they are depressive. They want to leave, so they leave and we have nothing to do with it.

“It cannot be this way. We already have enough abandonment. More than enough.”

Instead of right-to-die legislation, Portugal should “respond to dying patients’ interior pain with more company, more presence”, he said.

It is a point of view that is certain to hit home with families dealing with mentally ill loved-ones.

A brave young woman called Vanessa Geiger got in touch with the Resident this week, initially to ask us how she could sue a hospital for medical negligence.

It transpired that she had suffered a psychotic episode but was twice allowed to leave Porto hospitals within hours of failed suicide attempts.

Now well on the road to recovery, she has just posted a harrowing account on Facebook of how the authorities in Portugal do not ‘act’ sufficiently in mental health emergencies.

It begins with the sentence: “In this country, hospitals and their protocols allow and even incentivise suicide.”

And it goes on to explain how, despite the wishes of her best friend to see her interned in hospital and protected from self-harm, Vanessa was discharged twice on the basis that “hospitals are not prisons”.

The second time she had only just been saved by a PSP patrol which found her trying to walk in front of traffic on a motorway.

Vanessa’s reasoning has been echoed by CDS MP Isabel Galriça Neto who happens also to be in charge of palliative care at Lisbon’s Hospital da Luz.

Neto’s feeling is that the debate is skirting a veritable Pandora’s Box. “How can you define intolerable suffering in the area of mental health,” she asks. “It is extremely dangerous.”

Diário de Notícias explains that “for Isabel Galriça Neto, the law could allow, as it does in Holland and Belgium, for people to be killed without even asking for it, and for depressed people to be euthanised”.

As RTP informs, the debate is due to heat up even further this weekend when the “Right to die with dignity” movement has a meeting scheduled in Belém (the official residence of the President of the Republic).

By NATASHA DONN [email protected]