The Conundrum of Portugal: A legislative merry-go-round
2021 has not been a year without its successes for the Right to Die movement. New Zealand's newly enacted euthanasia law, approved by 65.2% in a referendum in October 2020, came into effect on November 8: Spain passed its euthanasia legislation on May 18, 2021 which went into effect June 25, 2021 and the Great State of New Mexico became the 11th US jurisdiction to enact MAID legislation which went into effect on June 18. On top of that, legal challenges to California's MAID law were rejected and California enacted SB380 which reduced the burdensome waiting period for a prescription from 15 days to 48 hours and extended the sunset provision for another 5 years to Jan 2031. All good news, of course, for those who believe that history is marching to enhance the rights of individuals to have the death they desire.
In North Carolina, we succeeded again in introducing bipartisan legislation, a rarity in itself since the movement in the US to enhance MAID access has regrettably been limited to Democrat-controlled states.
Which makes the situation in Portugal all the more confounding. Despite good intentions and a promising start, legislative initiatives in Lisbon have been reduced to a harrowing game of ping pong between the Parliament and the country's very popular and charismatic President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, in power since 2016. The Portuguese President is no mere figurehead, since he is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and has authority to appoint the Prime Minister. He also has the right to veto legislation. Oh, and in a country which is 80% Catholic, President Sousa is a true believer.
The First Round of Ping-Pong went to the legislature which on Jan 29, 2021, by a 126-78 vote approved a euthanasia bill which allowed someone suffering from a debilitating illness causing intolerable suffering to opt for MAID. Two weeks later on Feb 18, President Sousa rejected the bill on constitutional grounds citing the vagueness of the criteria for opting-in, remanding his decision to the 13-person Constitutional Court 10 of whose members are appointed by parliament. President Sousa's objection was centered in the language which allowed "intolerable suffering with a definitive injury of extreme gravity" as a qualifying condition for MAID; he found those words too vague and inviting of a subjective determination.
The Constitutional Court did not agree with the President's misgivings, finding that there are existing medical standards to objectively determine what constitutes "intolerable suffering". Nevertheless by a vote of 7-5 the Court did find the proposed law contravened the "inviolability of life" enshrined in the Constitution. Upon this decision, President Sousa sent the bill back to Parliament to be revised.
After an enjoyable summer recess, the Parliament reconvened and passed a revised bill on Nov 5, 2021 by 134-84. It was sent back to President Sousa for approval. In a deft political move, President Sousa on Nov 30, 2021 sent the bill back to Parliament with essentially peremptory if not rhetorical questions
The wanderings of this Portuguese bill in many ways encapsulates the difficulty of passing a tradition-defying law. Even when a majority in a country strongly supports the measure; even when a majority of elected representative strongly support the bill, there are discreet forces, usually aligned with strongly-held religious beliefs, which stymie progress. Let us hope that President Sousa accedes to the will of the Portuguese people.