Spanish parliament approves bill to legalise euthanasia

Spain's parliament voted by a wide margin Thursday to approve a bill that will allow euthanasia under strict conditions, despite fierce opposition from the Catholic church and conservative parties.

Spanish parliament approves bill to legalise euthanasia
A protestor outside Spain's parliament in February. Photo: AFP

The bill, introduced by Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's minority government, passed with 198 votes in favour and 138 against. There were two abstentions.

It still faces a vote in the Senate early in 2021 where it is also expected to pass.

The draft law will allow someone suffering from a “serious and incurable disease” or from a “debilitating or chronic condition” which the person feels is “unbearable” to receive assistance to die.   

The request to die must be made in writing and be reaffirmed two weeks later. The demand must then be accepted by two doctors, then examined by a commission before the green light is given.

The cost of the procedure will be covered by the public health system and medical professionals will have the right to “object on grounds of conscience”.    

“As a society, we cannot remain impassive in the face of the intolerable suffering of some people,” Health Minister Salvador Illa said during the debate in parliament before the vote.

But the main opposition conservative Popular Party (PP), which voted against the bill along with the far-right Vox, accused the government of “rushing” the vote to prevent a “serious debate”.

The proposed law is “a defeat for everyone, a failure of our health system and our society,” said PP lawmaker Jose Ignacio Echuniz, who called instead for greater use of palliative care for seriously ill people.

Vox vowed to challenge the law in Spain's constitutional court.   

Euthanasia and assisted suicide currently can currently be punished with jail terms of between two to ten years, but the sentence can be reduced if the person is terminally ill or enduring severe suffering and has asked to die.

The parliamentary vote comes 23 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” by director Alejandro Amenabar which won the best foreign film Oscar in 2005.

READ MORE: What you need to know about Spain's proposed euthanasia laws

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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.