Austrian Bishops oppose legalization of assisted suicide

During their recent Fall General Assembly, Austrian Bishops have reiterated their strong opposition to a new assisted suicide bill which will take effect in 2022.

By Lisa Zengarini

On 22 October, the Austrian Government has submitted a draft law of a new law legalizing assisted suicide which is expected to be approved by Parliament by 31 December 2021 and to take effect in January 2022.

Constitutional Court's ruling

The new legislation is being introduced following a ruling by the Austrian Constitutional Court (“Verfassungsgerichtshof – VfGH”), which in 2020 decreed that the prohibition of assisted suicide is unconstitutional as it infringes the individual right to self-determination (“individuelles Selbstbestimmungsrecht”) and the right to die with dignity (“menschenwürdiges Sterben”).

The proposed law

According to the proposed text, assisted suicide will be possible in the future for chronically or terminally ill adults, providing they consult two doctors who have to attest the person is capable of making his or her own decisions.

If there are any doubts, a psychologist should also be consulted. At the same time, the network of palliative centers will be expanded.

Bishops opposed to 'killing on request'

Over the past months, Austrian Bishops have repeatedly opposed legalization of assisted suicide and discussed the proposed law during their recent plenary, calling for a constitutional ban on 'Killing on request' ('Tötung auf Verlangen') and for adequate financial resources ensuring the legal right to access palliative care.

Unacceptable flaws 

In the press conference closing the Assembly, the president of the Austrian Bishops, Archbishop Franz Lackner, warned on the grave consequences of legalizing assisted suicide in Austria, noting that the new legislation - which is ostensibly intended to prevent abuse – presents "unacceptable flaws".

He also remarked that in countries where euthanasia has become legal it has become common practice.

“In a very short time the exceptional case becomes a socially accepted normality and exemption from punishment an enforceable right,” he said.

Archbishop Lackner explained that to prevent this from happening in Austria, the Bishops' Conference has participated in the discussion of the law, “obviously not to condone assisted suicide, but to uphold bishops’ commitment to protecting life."

Trivialization of assisted suicide 

Among the shortcomings of the drafted law, the prelate highlighted the fact that it hasn’t provided for a twelve-week period of reflection following the assessment by the two doctors, which increases the risk that vulnerable people may be pressured into asking for assisted suicide.

Also, applicants for assisted suicide are not automatically assessed by a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist, but only by two doctors. As formulated the law makes therefore assisted suicide a trivial medical prescription, as it is virtually not prosecutable, contrary to the requirements established by the Constitutional Court, Archchbishop Lackner pointed out.

"Any other form of assistance to any type of suicide, on the other hand, would be exempt from punishment," he added.

Dying with 'dignity'

According to the Austrian Bishops, the legalization of assisted suicide is part of a “cultural trend  by which the only form of life worth living is a full and active life, a life ‘of doing’ where consequently every handicap or disease is seen as a failure that cannot be tolerated.”

The Bishops also remarked the manipulative nature of the words “dying with dignity”.

"This manipulative discourse not only ignores the fact that every suicide remains a human tragedy, but is also unfair toward all those people who make it possible to die with dignity through reliable and attentive care and who will continue in the future,” he said.

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19 November 2021, 13:18