‘We’ve won the battle but not the war’: Spain’s euthanasia campaigners on new law

In 1998 Ramona Maneiro helped her friend Ramon Sampedro, paralysed from the neck down following an accident, to die, a tale told in the Oscar-winning Spanish film "The Sea Inside".

'We've won the battle but not the war': Spain's euthanasia campaigners on new law
Spanish Ramona Maneiro, gives a press conference in Boiro, northwestern Spain, 17 January 2005. Maneiro has admitted assisting the suicide of Ramon Sampedro, a tetraplegic writer whose 30-year battle for a dignified death was immortalized by film director Alejandro Amenabar in his recent blockbuster "Mar adentro" (The Sea inside) . AFP PHOTO/ STR (Photo by STR / AFP

Now over two decades later she will celebrate the expected passage on Thursday of a bill allowing euthanasia in Spain under strict conditions.

Maneiro, 60, recalled how she put a glass of water mixed with a bit of cyanide with a straw in front of Sampedro, so he could sip it while a video camera recorded his final moments and his explanation for wanting to die.”He had decided to go,” she told AFP near the port of Vigo in the northwestern region of Galicia, her salt and pepper hair gently swaying in the marine breeze.

“After, I put myself behind the camera, against the wall almost… until the end,” she added.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Spain’s proposed euthansia laws

A national debate

Sampedro’s death at age 55 stirred a national debate over assisted suicide and fuelled calls for it to be legalised.

He was a 25-year-old merchant marine when in 1968 he dived into a shallow creek near his home in a village near Vigo and broke his neck, leaving him a bedridden tetraplegic.

Frustrated at the thought of being dependent on his family for the rest of his life, he fought an unsuccessful 30-year court battle to be allowed to end his life with dignity.

His case gained international attention thanks to the success of “The Sea Inside” which won the best foreign language film at the 2005 Academy Awards. In it Sampedro is played by one of Spain’s leading actors, Javier Bardem.

If euthanasia had been allowed at the time, Maneiro wouldn’t have risked prison to help her friend.

She was arrested but released due to lack of evidence. Seven years later, after the statute of limitations had expired, she admitted her role in Sampedro’s death in a TV interview.

While Sampedro’s family blamed her for his death, the former fish cannery worker said she did not feel “guilty of anything”.

The legalisation of euthanasia was coming late, but it was a “victory” for those who “could benefit from it” as well as “for Ramon”, she added.

‘Like a vegetable’

The bill, set to get final approval in parliament on Thursday, will allow someone suffering from a “serious or incurable disease” to receive medical assistance to die.

Sofia Malagon, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2014, said the law gives her “peace” in case she “needs it one day”.

The progressive disease, which produces tremors and stiffness as well as problems walking, has already forced the 60-year-old Colombian who lives in Barcelona to give up her job as a nurse.

“Dying or living badly worries me… if I get dementia I won’t be Sofia anymore,” said Malagon, who has a masters in bioethics and has been active in the fight to legalise euthanasia.

“I don’t want to be left there like a vegetable,” she added in front of her huge library at her flat near Barcelona’s iconic Sagrada Familia basilica.

“Medicine should not only cure, it should also avoid suffering.”

While she welcomed the new law, she is not pleased that it gives doctors from the national health service the right to object on grounds of personal conscious.

“We won the battle but now the war,” said Malagon.

‘Suffering and pain’

Jesus Blasco, a cheerful 88-year-old, said he wanted to die after he underwent throat cancer surgery.

After spending five months in hospital where he was fed through a tube, doctors predicted a life without being able to eat or drink again.

He ignored their advice and began to eat again, but said he would consider euthanasia again if his health worsened.

“If continuing to live must be done at the cost of suffering and pain, I will give up,” the right-to-die activist said, speaking from his Barcelona home.

Like Malagon, he is worried that the new law is “decaffeinated” — that it applies to a narrow range of cases.

He is especially concerned that euthanasia will only be allowed “when the pain is unbearable”.

“Who will determine whether my pain is unbearable of not? A priest, the pope, politicians? It’s up to me.”

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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.