Is Spain on the verge of legalising euthanasia?

Spain's ruling Socialists on Tuesday won support from lawmakers to discuss a bill legalising euthanasia, despite fierce opposition from the Catholic church and rightwing groups.

Is Spain on the verge of legalising euthanasia?
Protests against euthanasia took place outside Spain's parliament during the debate. Photo: AFP

The vote was an initial step toward approving a proposal that has been championed by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who said the party had spent “years” working on the subject.

In Spain's lower house Congress of Deputies, 203 MPs voted in favour versus 140 against accepting the proposed bill, which will now be formally debated by lawmakers before a vote to approve it in the Congress and the Senate. Two lawmakers abstained.   

“Spain is taking a decisive step to recognise the right to a dignified death. Thanks to the people and groups who have been fighting for this for years,” tweeted Sanchez, who rules in coalition with the hard-left Podemos.

It is the third time in just over a year that the Socialists have tried to decriminalise euthanasia, with the bill proposing that any person suffering a serious debilitating or incurable illness may be helped to die if they wish, in order to avoid intolerable suffering.   

It also envisages the right to “object on grounds of conscience” for medical professionals.


“We are very hopeful that this time… the law will be advanced,” said Dr Fernando Marin, head of Right to Die with Dignity, expressing hope the legislation would be passed into law by the year's end.   

The euthanasia question was revived in April 2019 after a pensioner was arrested for helping assist in the suicide of his wife who had battled multiple sclerosis for 30 years. He was subsequently released.

But a parliamentary debate on the subject was blocked by the main conservative Popular Party (PP) and the liberal Ciudadanos.    

This time, opposition is coming from both the far-right Vox and the PP who, like the Catholic church, believe such situations should be managed with palliative care.

“Actively provoking a death is never a good solution,” said Luis Arguello, secretary-general of the Episcopal Conference, which groups Spain's leading bishops.

The debate comes 22 years after the death of Ramon Sampedro, a quadriplegic former ship mechanic who for decades fought for the legal right to an assisted suicide and a dignified death.

After the statute of limitations had expired, one of his friends admitted helping him take his own life, with Sampedro's story immortalised in a blockbuster called “The Sea Inside” (“Mar Adentro”) by director Alejandro Amenabar which won the best foreign film Oscar in 2005.   

Assisting someone to commit suicide in Spain carries a jail sentence of between two and five years, which increases to between six and 10 years if the person dies.

But the sentence can be reduced if the person was terminally ill or enduring severe suffering and had asked to die.

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TODAY: Spain’s euthanasia law comes into effect

A law legalising euthanasia and assisted suicide came into effect in Spain Friday, making the country one of a few to allow terminally-ill or gravely-injured patients to end their own suffering.

TODAY: Spain's euthanasia law comes into effect
A man holds a placard reading "To choose to die without suffering" during a demonstration in support of the law legalising euthanasia Photo: JAVIER SORIANO / AFP

The legislation, which was passed by parliament in March, “responds to the existing social demand on the matter” and contains “safeguards” on the implementation of euthanasia, the health ministry said in a statement

Spain is the fourth European nation to decriminalize assisted suicide after the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.

The law was drafted following public pressure generated by several high-profile cases, notably that of Ramon Sampedro whose plight was immortalized in the Oscar-winning 2004 film “The Sea Inside”.

It permits euthanasia in which medical staff intentionally end a life to relieve suffering, and assisted suicide in which it is the patient who carries out the procedure.

Anyone with a “serious or incurable illness” or a “chronic or incapacitating” condition can now request help dying to avoid “intolerable suffering”.

The patient must be a Spanish national or a legal resident and “fully aware and conscious” when they make the request, which has to be submitted twice in writing, 15 days apart.

A doctor can reject the request if the requirements have not been met. It must be approved by a second medic and by an evaluation body.

Any medic can withdraw on grounds of “conscience” from taking part in the procedure that will be available via Spain’s national health service.

But the legislation has drawn stark opposition from the Catholic Church and from Spain’s political right, with the main opposition Popular Party filing an appeal against the law on Thursday at the Constitutional Court.