Is Spain on the verge of legalising euthanasia?

Spain's ruling Socialists on Tuesday won support from lawmakers to discuss a bill legalising euthanasia, despite fierce opposition from the Catholic church and rightwing groups.

Is Spain on the verge of legalising euthanasia?
Protests against euthanasia took place outside Spain's parliament during the debate. Photo: AFP

The vote was an initial step toward approving a proposal that has been championed by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who said the party had spent “years” working on the subject.

In Spain's lower house Congress of Deputies, 203 MPs voted in favour versus 140 against accepting the proposed bill, which will now be formally debated by lawmakers before a vote to approve it in the Congress and the Senate. Two lawmakers abstained.   

“Spain is taking a decisive step to recognise the right to a dignified death. Thanks to the people and groups who have been fighting for this for years,” tweeted Sanchez, who rules in coalition with the hard-left Podemos.

It is the third time in just over a year that the Socialists have tried to decriminalise euthanasia, with the bill proposing that any person suffering a serious debilitating or incurable illness may be helped to die if they wish, in order to avoid intolerable suffering.   

It also envisages the right to “object on grounds of conscience” for medical professionals.


“We are very hopeful that this time… the law will be advanced,” said Dr Fernando Marin, head of Right to Die with Dignity, expressing hope the legislation would be passed into law by the year's end.   

The euthanasia question was revived in April 2019 after a pensioner was arrested for helping assist in the suicide of his wife who had battled multiple sclerosis for 30 years. He was subsequently released.

But a parliamentary debate on the subject was blocked by the main conservative Popular Party (PP) and the liberal Ciudadanos.    

This time, opposition is coming from both the far-right Vox and the PP who, like the Catholic church, believe such situations should be managed with palliative care.

“Actively provoking a death is never a good solution,” said Luis Arguello, secretary-general of the Episcopal Conference, which groups Spain's leading bishops.

The debate comes 22 years after the death of Ramon Sampedro, a quadriplegic former ship mechanic who for decades fought for the legal right to an assisted suicide and a dignified death.

After the statute of limitations had expired, one of his friends admitted helping him take his own life, with Sampedro's story immortalised in a blockbuster called “The Sea Inside” (“Mar Adentro”) by director Alejandro Amenabar which won the best foreign film Oscar in 2005.   

Assisting someone to commit suicide in Spain carries a jail sentence of between two and five years, which increases to between six and 10 years if the person dies.

But the sentence can be reduced if the person was terminally ill or enduring severe suffering and had asked to die.

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Switzerland: What is the difference between assisted suicide and euthanasia?

While the terms often are used interchangeably, assisted suicide and euthanasia - and the laws that govern them - are quite different. Here’s what you need to know.

A person in a medical coat holds hands with another
Euthanasia and assisted suicide might be spoken of in the same breath, but they are quite different. Here's what you need to know. Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

The terms assisted suicide, assisted dying and euthanasia are often used interchangeably – even by media and politicians covering the matter. 

There are however some key differences, both in terms of the legal situation and the practice itself. 

Assisted suicide is where a medical professional, usually a doctor but sometimes a pharmacist or other specialist, provides some form of medication to assist a patient as they commit suicide. 

EXPLAINED: How foreigners can access assisted suicide in Switzerland

Crucially, it is the patient who takes the final step, i.e. by taking a medication or by pressing a switch through which the medication is administered. 

Euthanasia on the other hand is where the medication which ends someone’s life is administered by a doctor or medical professional. 

Euthanasia is sometimes known as voluntary euthanasia, which references the fact that the patient volunteers for the process by providing consent. 

Other forms of medical intervention which lead to death – for instance turning off life support for someone who has been in a long-term coma – do not fit within the definition of voluntary euthanasia. 

The term ‘assisted dying’ is used as a grouping term to refer to both assisted suicide and euthanasia, although media sources – particularly in the United Kingdom – often use assisted dying when referring primarily to assisted suicide. 

What are the rules for assisted suicide and euthanasia in Switzerland? 

The law in Switzerland recognises the distinction between assisted suicide and euthanasia. 

Euthanasia is not permitted under law in Switzerland, while assisted suicide is allowed for both locals and foreigners. 

While article 115 of the Swiss penal code prohibits assisted suicide for “self-serving reasons” and article 114 prohibits “causing the death” of a person for “commendable motives, and in particular out of compassion for the victim”, assisted suicide for non-selfish reasons is not specifically prohibited as long as certain conditions are met. 

The Swiss supreme court has ruled the following: people must commit suicide by their own hand, for example, by taking medication themselves. A doctor cannot administer a lethal injection without being liable for criminal prosecution.

People must also be aware of actions they are undertaking and have given due consideration to their situation. In addition, they be consistently sure they wish to die, and, of course, not be under the influence of another person, or group of persons.

READ MORE: What you need to know about assisted suicide in Switzerland

Several other jurisdictions across Europe and the globe also make a legal distinction between the two, although euthanasia is legal in some countries including the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Columbia. 

What is the medical procedure involved?

Most Swiss associations request that patients drink sodium pentobarbital, a sedative that in strong enough doses causes the heart muscle to stop beating.

Since the substance is alkaline, it burns a bit when swallowed.

A professional prepares the needle, but it is up to the patient to open the valve that allows the short-acting barbiturate to mix with a saline solution and begin flowing into their vein.

A video is shot of the patient stating their name, date of birth and that they understand what they are about to do. The camera keeps rolling as they open the valve and the footage is used as evidence that they willingly took their own life.

It usually takes about 20 to 30 seconds for the patient to fall asleep.