Spanish lawmakers on Thursday, December 24, 2020, voted in favor of a law decriminalizing euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, making it likely that Spain will join a handful of other countries where terminally ill patients can legally obtain help to end their lives.
Spain’s draft law was presented in February by the incoming Socialist-led government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, which argued for the removal of an article in Spain’s criminal code that bans anyone from assisting in the death of a person suffering from a terminal illness.
On Thursday, 198 lawmakers of the lower house of Parliament voted in favor of the euthanasia law, while 138 voted against and two abstained. The Senate will next consider the law, and it seems likely to pass there too.
If the law passes the remaining parliamentary hurdle, it could come into force as early as next spring.
The law is designed to allow the patient to decide between euthanasia, performed by a health care professional, or assisted suicide, which could take place at home by taking a fatal dose of prescribed medication.
Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland have already approved some form of legislation covering assisted dying. In the United States, several states including California, Colorado, and Oregon allow patients to obtain lethal prescriptions if terminally ill. A year ago, Western Australia became the second state of Australia to pass a law for assisted dying.
Aid in dying remains hotly debated in several countries and has been at the heart of several major court cases. Earlier this year, a German court overturned a ban on assisted suicide. In Portugal, lawmakers took the first step in February toward allowing euthanasia, but the legislative change could still be vetoed by the country’s president.
On Thursday in Madrid, a small group of demonstrators gathered outside the Parliament to oppose the new law to the beat of funeral drums, some waving skull-and-cross bone signs.
But during the parliamentary debate, María Luisa Carcedo, a Socialist lawmaker and a former health minister, argued that the law allowed Spain to take “a step forward in civil rights, which will bring more liberty to citizens.” Far from being “an imposition by the state,” she added, the law meant that “it is the patient who decides.”
Conservative lawmakers voted against the law, saying that the government was rushing through an important change for society without sufficient public debate. Lourdes Méndez, a lawmaker for the far-right Vox party, said that the law amounted to “signing death sentences for the weakest.”
Until now, a person suffering from a terminal illness in Spain could refuse treatment, but the new law will also allow such a patient to receive assistance to endure a painless death, as long as that help is sought “freely and unequivocally.”
Before seeking assistance, the law says, patients must have been granted full information about their conditions, as well as about palliative care and any other alternatives available. The law also specifies that the request to die must be made in writing and must then be repeated 15 days later. Doctors can refuse to carry out euthanasia or assist an ill patient’s suicide, citing conscientious objection. Spain plans to have a register of doctors who are opposed.
Spain is a traditionally Catholic country and the Church has strongly opposed the idea of decriminalizing euthanasia or assisted suicide. Earlier this month, the Spanish Church’s Conference of Bishops warned that the “presumed right” to assisted dying would put a person under undue pressure. “The experience of the few countries that have legalized euthanasia is that it incites the weakest to seek death,” the Church wrote in a statement headlined “Life is a gift, euthanasia a failure.”
This stance has been supported by conservative parties, which have argued that the onus should instead be on improving palliative care. But recent opinion polls have shown that most Spaniards approve of a right to choose such a death.
After Thursday’s vote, Prime Minister Sánchez thanked on Twitter all the lawmakers and civil society associations that supported the new law, calling it “a great social conquest for our country.”
Sánchez was voted into office in January at the helm of Spain’s first coalition government, and the euthanasia law was the first one presented by his left-wing administration as part of its bid to promote a more liberal agenda. Under a previous Socialist government, Spain also became in 2005 one of the first countries to legalize same-sex marriage.