Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa has vetoed a bill approved in parliament this month to legalize euthanasia, claiming the conditions for permitting medically assisted death were too vague and possibly too radical.
Lawmakers can overrule a presidential veto, or fix the contested clauses, but will only have time to debate the issue following elections scheduled for January 30 — and it’s not certain the majority behind legalization will be reelected.
“The bill, in one clause, says permission for anticipated death requires a ‘fatal disease’ … but widens it elsewhere to ‘incurable disease’ even if this is not fatal, and only ‘serious disease’ in another clause,” Rebelo de Sousa wrote late Monday.
If the criteria for legalized euthanasia has fallen below a fatal disease, the president asked if the draft law “represents a vision that is more radical and drastic than the dominant view in Portuguese society?”
Parliament voted 138-84, with five abstentions, on November 5 to back the bill, which would see Portugal join a handful of countries that have legalized euthanasia — including neighboring Spain, which adopted a similar law in June.
The president’s action triggered an angry response from lawmakers who backed the bill.
“This was a cynical veto,” tweeted Pedro Filipe Soares, parliamentary leader of the Left Bloc party. “But it won’t be presidential cynicism that has the last word. Euthanasia will be legal, sooner or later. The next legislature will wipe out the memory of this inhumane veto by Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, I’m certain of that.”
This marks the second time the center-right president has blocked parliament’s attempts to legalize euthanasia.
He sent a bill approved in January for review by the Constitutional Court, which decided it was too vague. Lawmakers tightened up the text — but not enough for the president, who announced his decision late at night shortly after returning to Lisbon from an official visit to Angola.
Socialist parliamentarian Isabel Moreira, a strong backer of the bill, suggested Rebelo de Sousa had been motivated by his personal opposition to euthanasia rather than following the constitution.
“I think this reflects the personal position of President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa on this bill, so it is not a normal veto at all,” she told Rádio Renascença. “It’s even a deviation, from my point of view.”
Supporters of legalization had been eager to vote through the bill in this parliament, where there was a clear majority in favor.
They fear the parliamentary arithmetic could tilt the other way after the early election, called after the minority Socialist government led by Prime Minister António Costa suffered a defeat last month on a key budget vote.
Although pushed by the Socialist Party and the radical Left Bloc, the issue cut across the left-right divide.
The Portuguese Communist Party was firmly against depenalizing euthanasia, while the pro-business Liberal Initiative party voted in favor.
The two largest parties gave their lawmakers a free vote: A handful of Socialists voted against, while center-right opposition leader Rui Rio voted in favor, against the vast majority of his Social Democratic Party.
A small but growing group of countries allow for legal euthanasia, including Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Canada, Colombia and New Zealand. Switzerland allows assisted suicide, and some U.S. states permit forms of medically assisted death.
Rebelo de Sousa said he feared parliament’s text would place Portugal alongside European countries that, he said, have more permissive laws on allowing assisted death, rather than lining up with a more restrictive approach approved in the Americas. Under Portugal’s constitution, most executive power lies with the government, but the president can block laws he judges unconsitutional or order judicial reviews.
A poll last year showed almost 60 percent of Portuguese people support the depenalization of euthanasia.
This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.