The government has reached an agreement with a view to a new legal regulation of euthanasia in Austria. People who want to make use of assisted suicide can draw up a death will from next year – similar to the living will. But there are restrictions – and one group is explicitly excluded.
Access is restricted to permanently seriously ill or terminally ill people. Minors are explicitly excluded. A lethal drug will be available in pharmacies. This is accompanied by an expansion of hospice and palliative care.
VfGH dealt with the prohibition of assisted suicide
The new “Death Disposal Act” became necessary because the Constitutional Court (VfGH) lifted the ban on assisted suicide in Austria at the end of 2021 – but not the ban on active euthanasia. If nothing had happened by the end of the year, assisted suicide would simply have been permitted from next year. Conservative organizations and religious communities have pushed for legal protection to prevent abuse.
With the new law, whose planned cornerstones Justice Minister Alma Zadic (Greens), Constitutional Minister Karoline Edtstadler (ÖVP) and Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein (Greens) presented in a background discussion on Saturday, the framework for assisted suicide is now strictly limited. A “death decree”, with which one decides on the possibility of assisted suicide, can only be drawn up “personally” by the person concerned. Any permanently seriously ill or terminally ill person is entitled to do so. This must be of legal age and capable of making decisions. This route is excluded for minors.
Information is a prerequisite for a death will
In order to issue a death will (from notaries or patient advocates), two doctors must provide information. One of them must have a palliative qualification. The decision-making ability of the person willing to die must also be confirmed by a doctor. If a doctor has doubts, a psychiatrist or psychologist must also be called in. A period of twelve weeks must also be observed before the ruling is issued. The aim is to overcome acute phases of crisis. However, if people only have a very short time (about a few weeks) to live, this period is shortened to two weeks.
A standing order entitles people who want to die to collect a lethal drug from a pharmacy. In the ruling, a person can also be determined who will collect this product for the person concerned, for example when the person is not mobile. Delivery by the pharmacy is also possible.
Active euthanasia remains prohibited
The preparation (which the Minister of Health stipulates by ordinance) must be administered independently. If you are not able to take the drug orally (e.g. if you have difficulty swallowing), you can also give it another way, for example through a tube. In this case, however, the person concerned must trigger this probe himself. This point of independent release is important because it is about the demarcation from active euthanasia, which is still prohibited. The government emphasized on Saturday that no one is obliged to provide euthanasia. Pharmacists, too, must not be obliged to dispense the preparation.
Details on euthanasia
The government representatives emphasized that euthanasia will definitely only remain unpunished via the drug available in pharmacies in the future and via the outlined procedure. But here, too, there are restrictions: this route is also prohibited for minors, for reprehensible reasons (if one helps out of greed), for people who do not suffer from a serious illness and if no medical advice is given.
In addition to the Death Disposal Act, there is an expansion of hospice and palliative care. A separate fund is to be set up for this purpose. Starting in 2022, the federal government will provide the federal states with a special-purpose grant annually, with third-party funding provided by the federal government, the federal states and the municipalities. In 2021 the federal government will provide EUR 21 million, then EUR 36 million in 2023 and EUR 51 million in 2024. If the federal states and municipalities use their full resources, a total of 153 million euros would be available around 2024. According to government information from the federal government, there are currently six million euros per year, including state and municipal funds, i.e. 18 million euros.
Parliament’s decision is to come in December
According to the plans, the new regulation is to come into force on January 1, 2022. For implementation, a resolution in parliament is still required, which is to take place in December.
Zadic spoke of a “very sensitive issue”. The law should “bring legal certainty” so that people who help are not punished, “but can help and support really seriously ill people in their decision to die with dignity,” she said.
Edstadler on assisted suicide
Edstadler emphasized that the ÖVP’s credo had always been “that people shouldn’t die by someone’s hand, but by their hand”. Like Mückstein, she referred to the expansion of hospice and palliative care. “We assume that with this massive expansion of the hospice movement, many people will be put on a different path, that they no longer have the need to make use of assisted suicide.”
Mückstein saw a “balanced law”. “The aim is to strengthen the area-wide, local offer,” he said of the planned expansion of hospice and palliative care. He also knew from his time as a family doctor about the difficulty of the subject – “not only for those affected, but also for their relatives.”
The “Association for Self-Determined Dying – Last Aid” initiative welcomed the bill, even though it was largely criticized as too little: “Even if we can see some good things in the emerging solution, it is regrettable that the government is only on the VfGH decision of the previous year was received and it failed to fundamentally tackle the long overdue liberalization of the euthanasia legislation “, it said in a written statement to the APA.