Helping people to die: Europe leads the way


In April 2002, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalise active euthanasia. Photo: AFP

Switzerland is one of a growing number of countries that allow people to receive help to end their lives.

France recently looked set to join them, with the national ethics committee saying it is open to the terminally ill receiving "active" help in dying and President Emmanuel Macron launching public consultations on the issue.

Here is a round-up of the situation in Europe:

Euthanasia: Dutch first

In April 2002, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalise active euthanasia, whereby doctors administer lethal doses of drugs to patients suffering from an incurable condition.

It also legalised assisted suicide, where patients can receive help to voluntarily take their own life.

The Dutch law said the patient must have "unbearable suffering with no prospect of improvement" and must have requested to die in a way that is "voluntary, well considered and with full conviction".

In 2012, the Netherlands expanded the law to authorise euthanasia for over-12s in great suffering, provided they have parental consent, and in 2020 to patients with severe dementia, if the patient had requested the procedure while still mentally competent.

Countries follow suit

Belgium was the second country to adopt euthanasia and assisted suicide in May 2002, and with similar caveats to the Dutch.

In 2014, it went further than the Netherlands by allowing terminally ill children of all ages to also request the procedure, with the consent of their parents.

Fellow Benelux country Luxembourg decriminalised euthanasia and assisted dying in 2009 followed by Spain in June 2021, which legalised both practices.

Portugal could be next on the list, after parliament in June again voted in favour of an amended bill on decriminalising euthanasia, which conservative President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa had previously vetoed.

Final destination

Switzerland, which prohibits euthanasia, has for decades allowed assisted suicide, making it the go-to destination for patients from around Europe looking for assistance to end their suffering.

The growth of so-called "suicide tourism" has caused much soul-searching in Switzerland but the authorities decided in 2011 against restricting the practice.

Neighbouring Austria, a staunchly Catholic nation, also legalised assisted suicide in 2022 after its constitutional court ruled the country was violating citizens' fundamental rights in making it illegal.

Italy's constitutional court by contrast shot down a bid to hold a referendum on decriminalising assisted dying, judging that such a vote would fail to protect the weakest.

In 2019, the same court had ruled that it should not always be punishable to help someone with "intolerable" physical or psychological suffering to commit suicide.

The issue is also the subject of intense public interest in Britain, where a bill on assisted dying in England and Wales was debated in the House of Lords late last year. – AFP Relaxnews

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