Portugal’s dying problem
The country’s pro-life community fights the latest euthanasia bill
Antonio Pinheiro Torres slept in his 90-year-old mother’s room the night before she died in May 2020. She had Alzheimer’s and spent the last three years of her life largely unconscious in her bed with a feeding tube. Torres said his family would have never considered euthanasia even if it were legal in Portugal. Even though his mother was incapacitated, he and his family valued her life. “I never have a doubt that that person was a person, and it was my mother,” Torres said. “The fact that she could not speak with me, the fact that she was not autonomous, the fact that she was not ‘useful’ … she was not less human.”
At the time of Torres’ mother’s death, lawmakers in Portugal were working on a bill to legalize euthanasia. They approved it for discussion in parliament at the beginning of 2020, but pandemic lockdowns put the legislation on hold. The measure passed a final vote in January 2021. On Feb. 18, Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa withheld his signature and asked the Constitutional Court to review the bill, citing concerns about conflicts with the constitution. If the court and president approve the law, it would legalize euthanasia for terminally ill or severely injured people, forcing the practice on a country that already lacks access to life-affirming services for the dying.
Torres, the vice president of the Portuguese Federation for Life, joined the country’s pro-life movement in 1996 to fight the erosion of protections for unborn babies. He and other pro-lifers have also advocated for protections for the elderly since around 2016, when about 100 Portuguese people signed a manifesto in support of euthanasia. When Torres asked two of the signers to explain their position, both said they watched their fathers die and couldn’t bear seeing their pain. To them, euthanasia was the solution to suffering.
“We are a poor country … with a national health system that doesn’t work so well,” Torres said. “People die badly in Portugal, so in some cases they die in a lot of pain, in a lot of suffering and so on, and so in the minds of people, giving them an injection is a kind of treatment.”
Torres said the solution isn’t euthanasia, but more palliative care, a medical approach that minimizes pain through treatment. According to the Population Reference Bureau, Portugal is among the five oldest populations in the world, but it lacks widespread access to palliative care.
Before COVID-19 reached Portugal last March and limited in-person gatherings, Torres and his pro-life colleagues held two large demonstrations outside of parliament to protest the euthanasia bill. They later collected signatures in support of a referendum on the euthanasia law. In October, Torres drove to the parliamentary building in Lisbon to deliver boxes holding 95,000 signatures, far more than the 60,000 required to warrant a call. But the parliament turned down the request.
Torres said he didn’t expect the referendum to happen. But he and his colleagues hoped the effort would draw the Portuguese people’s attention to the euthanasia issue. Although he’s not sure how the majority of citizens would have voted on the referendum, he thinks national consensus would be largely against euthanasia if pro-lifers could reach more citizens. “There’s a lot of confusion in Portugal about the terms of the discussion,” he said. “With more discussion, you win ground.”
He said some Portuguese people confuse euthanasia—active termination through a physician-administered lethal injection or a physician-prescribed, self-administered dose—with allowing someone to die naturally by halting medical interventions. Torres thinks that more people would oppose euthanasia if they understood the terms.
But for now, the issue primarily rests in the hands of the legislators, the majority of whom supported the euthanasia bill. Torres said most of these politicians (both conservative and liberal) are far to the left of their own constituents on social issues. Their positions don’t necessarily reflect what the majority of voters believe—or even what the Portuguese constitution says, since it declares human life “sacrosanct.”
The Constitutional Court has until March 15 to weigh in on these potential issues. Torres thinks it’s unlikely the court will declare the law constitutional. But if it does, the question would return to the president’s desk. The court could also send the law back to parliament for amendments. But Torres hopes the court identifies significant constitutional violations and effectively kills the bill for good.
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