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Providing for painless death

New bill improves protection of the terminal patient, but does not extend to euthanasia

Six months after announcing it, the government has given the green light to legal regulation of the right to a decent death ? a painless one ? for terminal patients. The official name is more convoluted: Law Regulating the Rights of the Person in the Final Process of Life. The new regulation has nothing to do with euthanasia, an electoral promise of the Socialist Party (PSOE) in 2004 ? in reality, what was promised was the formation of a congressional committee to study the matter ? which has gradually been left by the wayside due to belligerent rejection from the most conservative sectors of society, led by the main opposition Popular Party and the Catholic Church.

The regulation of the right to a painless death is not intended to be a substitute for regulated euthanasia. It occupies a separate space of its own, though often bordering dangerously on the latter. The debate on euthanasia is still pending, and at some time will have to be faced with common sense and without ideological prejudice, as has already been done in other countries.

With modern medical advances, there can be no justification at all for a terminal patient having to undergo a period of physical suffering prior to their final passing. The fact that, in the terms of the proposed law, the government is addressing the task of formalizing this right only in the final stretch of a legislature dominated by economic crisis and unemployment, in no way detracts from the social importance of the bill, especially in view of the possibility that a successor government of the Popular Party may consider such regulation superfluous.

The detailed terms of the bill tend to reinforce the terminal patient's right to decide how they wish the end of their life to be, when there is no further hope of a cure. And the norm, according to the draft to which this newspaper has had access, makes it clear to all health and medical personnel that it is the patient's will which must prevail, and to which their conduct must conform. This eliminates the possibility (cases of which are not unknown) of these personnel refusing to administer certain palliative medications on grounds of conscientious objection, however devoid of justification such an objection may be.

The draft bill for the new regulation has not been slapped together in haste. It goes back to the treatment guidelines in the National Strategy for Palliative Care, prepared a few years ago by the Health Ministry. The so-called Leganés case, in which Dr Luis Montes (who had been administering palliative sedation to terminal patients in a public hospital in the Madrid district of Leganés) was subjected to legal persecution, which was ultimately unsuccessful, underlines the necessity of the proposed law. There is a need for a legal framework that demands respect for the patient's will, and eliminates any risk of legal consequences for the healthcare professionals whose job it is to assist them at the end of their existence.

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