Spanish Congress approves first euthanasia bill with broad majority

After decades of social debate, Spain will regulate the right to a dignified death

Socialist lawmaker Maria Luisa Carcedo, who pushed for an euthanasia law when she was health minister, is embraced by fellow deputies after the vote.Andrea Comas

In a historic vote, Spain’s lower house of parliament on Thursday gave majority backing to the country’s first euthanasia law.

The bill regulating the right to a dignified death attracted cross-party support and was approved on first reading with 198-138 votes and two abstentions. It will now go to the Senate, and if no amendments are introduced, it could go into effect in the early months of 2021. This would make Spain the sixth country in the world to recognize this right after the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Canada and New Zealand. In Switzerland, assisted suicide “from non-selfish motives” is legal.

The law will allow people suffering from a serious, incurable condition to request and receive assistance to end their lives. The petition must be made on four occasions and be backed by medical reports, and healthcare workers will retain their right to conscientious objection. After the procedure is approved by an evaluating committee, the patient must give final consent again. Supporters said these provisions guarantee that euthanasia will be an option but never an imposition as its detractors have claimed.

Anti-euthanasia protesters in front of Congress on Thursday. Andrea Comas

The text of the bill talks about “serious, chronic and debilitating conditions or serious, incurable diseases causing intolerable suffering” as valid causes for requesting life-ending assistance. While the document does not use the term “assisted suicide,” it contemplates “the direct administration to a patient of a substance by the relevant healthcare professional,” in other words euthanasia, or “supplying a patient with a substance that can be self-administered to cause death,” meaning medically assisted suicide. The procedure may be carried out at public or private health centers, or at the patient’s home, according to the bill.

Several lawmakers underscored that surveys show a majority of Spaniards to be in favor of regulating the right to die. “It is a social demand that cuts across ideological differences,” said Health Minister Salvador Illa, of the Socialist Party (PSOE). Illa said the bill’s passage proves that Spain is “a democratic, mature country. We could not remain unmoved by unbearable suffering.” In recent years, the Congress of Deputies had refused to legislate on this matter on up to four occasions.

The leader of Ciudadanos (Citizens), Inés Arrimadas, said it was an honor to support the bill, which began as an initiative of leftist parties. “We are liberal and we support liberty,” she said, asking detractors to refrain from turning the bill’s contents into “a caricature.”

Only right-of-center groups – Popular Party (PP), the far-right Vox and Union of the Navarrese People (UPN) – voted against the bill. While the PP toned down its criticism, Vox lawmaker Lourdes Méndez-Monasterio stated that the law will introduce “an industry of death” in Spain. Euthanasia, she said, represents “the destruction of our culture.”

Early activists

Lawmakers had words of praise for individuals who fought for decades for the right to euthanasia in Spain. These include Ramón Sampedro, a quadriplegic man from Galicia who ended his life with the help of a friend in 1988 after a 30-year campaign – his story was made into an award-winning film, The Sea Inside, starring Javier Bardem.

Supporters of the bill also recalled the case of María José Carrasco, a terminally ill woman whose husband was arrested in April 2019 for helping her end her life, as well as Luis Montes, a doctor who was removed from his post at Leganés Hospital 15 years ago after Madrid regional authorities accused him of sedating terminally ill patients.

English version by Susana Urra.

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