Austria: Assisted suicide legalized despite Church opposition
By Stefan J. Bos
The New Year began in Austria with an offer of assisted suicide to those adults deemed to suffer too much to stay alive.
Authorities say the practice is tightly regulated. Assisted suicide will be limited to terminally ill adults or those with a permanent debilitating condition.
Under the law, underaged children and people suffering from mental health issues cannot access this option.
Those seeking suicide will have to consult with two doctors about their case.
Depending on their condition, patients must wait between two and 12 weeks to reflect on their decision before they are allowed to access lethal drugs from a pharmacy.
Under the new law, which passed in December, it will still be illegal to assist someone else's suicide actively. The legislation came into force on New Year's Day despite fierce opposition from Austria's Catholic Bishops.
Austrian Archbishop Franz Lackner had warned that the law presents in his words "unacceptable flaws."
The president of the Austrian Bishops’ Conference expressed concern that applicants for assisted suicide are only assessed by two doctors and not by an additional clinical psychologist or psychiatrist.
Archbishop Lackner warned that this makes assisted suicide a trivial medical prescription as it is virtually not prosecutable, despite such requirements by the Constitutional Court.
He noted that assisted suicide had become standard practice in countries where euthanasia was legalized.
Austria is now among several European countries that have legalized forms of assisted dying, including Belgium and the Netherlands, France, Spain, and Switzerland.
Further away, Canada also expanded its law on the practice under certain circumstances. And in the United States, several states have "death with dignity statutes" that permit doctor-assisted deaths for terminally ill patients.
Lamentable cultural trend
However, Austrian Bishops view legalizing assisted suicide as part of a "cultural trend by which the only form of life worth living is a full and active life."
The Bishops condemned what they saw as the manipulative nature of the words "dying with dignity" surrounding the suicide law in Austria, a heavily Catholic nation.
They fear that the legislation will further contribute to an era where "every handicap or disease is seen as a failure that cannot be tolerated."
Support for end-of-life care
Instead, they say additional financial resources should be made available for supporting the suffering and terminally ill patients.
Archbishop Lackner said Austria's legislation ignores that every suicide remains a human tragedy and that every life is valuable.
He stressed the law is "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."
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