Euthanasia in Europe: Where is assisted dying legal?

Spanish campaigners were successful in their push for legalising euthanasia
Spanish campaigners were successful in their push for legalising euthanasia   -   Copyright  JAVIER SORIANO/AFP
By Luke Hurst  & Camille Bello  with Reuters

Portugal's parliament voted again on Friday to decriminalise euthanasia, while France launched a citizens' debate on end-of-life care, as both countries consider the legalisation of assisted dying.

A 2016 French law allows doctors to keep terminally ill patients sedated before they die, but it stops short of allowing assisted suicide.

Some French citizens - and citizens of other European countries - end up travelling to neighbouring countries where assisted dying or passive euthanasia is allowed.

The issue is currently under debate in a number of European countries, while over the last few years more countries have changed their laws to decriminalise or legalise means of voluntarily ending life.

So, where is assisted dying legal? Euronews looks at the state of legislation in different EU countries.

What is assisted dying?

Assisted dying refers to both voluntary active euthanasia and physician-assisted death. These two types of assisted dying distinguish a difference in the degree of the doctor's involvement. 

Voluntary active euthanasia involves the physician playing an active role in the patient's request to die, usually by supplying an intravenous lethal substance. 

Physician-assisted death implies that the medical personnel provides the patient with the lethal means to kill themselves, meaning it's the patient who employs them.

Some countries have also allowed passive euthanasia, which is the withdrawal or withholding of life-preserving treatments, at the request of the patient or a family member.

What is the general picture of assisted dying in the European Union?

Euthanasia is legal in five countries in Europe: Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and more recently Germany and Spain.

The former two countries even recognise requests from minors under strict circumstances.

Assisted suicide, in which somebody is given the means to end their own life, has been legal in Switzerland since 1942 but active euthanasia is not allowed.

Other countries such as Austria, Finland, and Norway allow passive euthanasia under strict circumstances, where those suffering from an incurable disease can decide not to be administered life-prolonging treatments, such as artificial nutrition or hydration.

It's important not to confuse passive euthanasia with withdrawing life-sustaining treatment in the person's best interests. The latter can be part of palliative care and is not necessarily euthanasia.

France is not the only European country to be deep in debate about the issue. There has been a recent push for an assisted dying law in Ireland, but at present that has stalled.

Portugal's thorny euthanasia debate

One country that has come very close to legalisation is Portugal, but two presidential vetoes in two years have stopped the passing of the law in the Catholic-majority country.

In June and again on Friday (December 9), its parliament once again delivered a strong vote in favour of decriminalising the practice.

Portugal's conservative president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, can now either sign it into law, veto it again or send it to the Constitutional Court. He said he would be quick to announce his decision.

The approved bill addressed some of his concerns, specifying that people would be allowed to request assistance in dying in cases when they are "in a situation of intense suffering, with definitive injury of extreme gravity or serious and incurable disease".