Chile Debates Legalizing Euthanasia

(Bloomberg) -- Chile is fast ditching its reputation as South America’s most conservative and Catholic country, with lawmakers now discussing whether to make it the second nation in the region to legalize euthanasia.

Less than a year after allowing abortion in some cases, a commission of the Chamber of Deputies approved a bill that would permit euthanasia for the terminally ill or in cases of extreme suffering, enabling doctors to prescribe lethal medication.

"In the past, this subject was a big taboo,” Vlado Mirosevic, a lawmaker from the Liberal Party who originally presented the bill to Congress, said in an interview Thursday. “This discussion about euthanasia is putting Chile at the forefront in civil liberties.”

Chile has come a long way since emerging from the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in 1990. Back then, divorce was illegal, illegitimate children had less rights than legitimate children and abortion was illegal, even if the mother was likely to die because of the pregnancy. That has now all changed. Divorce was legalized in 2004 and an abortion bill passed in 2017.

The euthanasia bill will now be analyzed article by article and probably will be voted on by the lower house next month, where it already has the votes required for approval, according to Mirosevic. It will then move on to the Senate.

"That will be the test of fire," Mirosevic said.

Catholic Church

The Catholic Church, which railed against the euthanasia bill when it was first presented in 2014, may take a lower profile this year. Chile has been rocked for more than a year by a series of sexual abuse scandals in the Church that have slashed its once untouchable social status.

“It’s one of the factors," said Anne Barrett-Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a research center that tracks clergy sexual abuse cases globally and has built a database of more than 100 cases of abuse in Chile. The disillusion with the church "plays into the willingness of people to think independently and not follow doctrine."

When Pope Francis came to Chile last year, many of his open-air meetings were sparsely attended in a graphic demonstration of the Church’s dwindling prestige.

With the Church on the back foot, a survey by pollster Cadem in May said that about 70 percent of Chileans approve euthanasia. A more recent poll also by Cadem showed for the first time that less than 50 percent of the country say they’re Catholic.

If the bill is approved, Chile would join the small group that includes Switzerland, Colombia, Canada and Belgium that allow euthanasia. Another larger group of countries permit assisted suicide, where doctors can provide the lethal drugs but not assist in their injection.

Anyone planning to use euthanasia in Chile will have to prove they are mentally healthy, without such illnesses as depression or schizophrenia, Mirosevic said.

“Chile had a reputation within the region of a being a very conservative country, and that vision has definitely changed," Mirosevic said.

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