Portugal took a major step towards the decriminalisation of euthanasia on Thursday when lawmakers voted in favour of the first reading of five proposals aimed at changing the law.

The move was narrowly rejected two years ago but stands a good chance of completing its passage this time around thanks to the parliamentary majority won by the socialists at last October's election.

The legislation submitted by the ruling Socialist Party, which determines "the special conditions for the practice of non-punishable euthanasia", was approved with 127 votes in favour, 86 votes against and 10 abstentions, out of a total of 230 seats.

"Prosecuting someone who helps a patient with an incurable disease is a form of intolerance," socialist MP Isabel Moreira argued during the debate.

Similar proposals from the hard-left Left Bloc, the People Animals Nature party (PAN), the Greens and a liberal deputy were also adopted.

Most deputies of the main opposition party, the centre-right Social Democratic Party, as well as the Communist Party, the right-wing minority party CDS-PP and the only representative of the far right voted against all of the proposals.

The five proposals will now be put into a single draft bill for a final vote, expected to take place before the summer.

Any new bill must then be signed into law by Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, a conservative who has not publicly taken a position on the issue and who has the power of veto.

So far Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands are the only European countries to have legalised euthanasia

Hundreds of euthanasia opponents protested outside parliament
Hundreds of euthanasia opponents protested outside parliament AFP / PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA


Hundreds of anti-euthanasia protesters demonstrated in front of parliament as the debate opened.

"Yes to life, no to death," protesters chanted, brandishing banners with slogans such as "Life First" and "Don't kill, heal!".

The Catholic Church, which predominates in Portugal, campaigned against the draft bills both among its faithful and those of other religious denominations.

Unlike when the euthanasia issue was first broached in parliament in 2018, the Church has been advocating a referendum on the issue in the belief that a majority would reject euthanasia.

Along with the Catholic church, several organisations representing doctors and nurses oppose the move to decriminalise.

So too does the National Council of Ethics for the Life Sciences, a consultative body independent of parliament that opposes any change to the current law, which already allows for the ending of medical treatment in some cases.

The most recent Portuguese opinion poll on euthanasia is from 2017, when 46.1 percent of respondents said they backed it with 27.4 percent opposed.

In another question, 44.1 percent said they were in favour of a referendum on the issue, with 32.7 percent opposed.