On December 16th, the Austrian Parliament approved the legalization of assisted suicide for people suffering from serious illness or deemed incurable. The law went into effect on January 1st.
Until then, Austrian law punished those who facilitate suicide with a five-year prison sentence. Last year the Constitutional Court ordered a review of the law, following a court ruling that the ban on assisted dying violated people’s fundamental rights.
The law applies to adults with a permanent illness. Each case will require an assessment by two physicians, including whether the patient is capable of making the decision independently. In order to ensure that the request for suicide is not the result of a temporary crisis, a minimum delay of twelve weeks must be observed before the actual killing. This period may be reduced to two weeks for terminally ill patients.
Conservatives and religious organizations have tried to modify the law to avoid abuse. An amendment was added to ensure that the list of pharmacies dispensing lethal preparations would not be made public. All the political parties—Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), Greens, New Austrian and Liberal Forum (Neos)—validated the text, except the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). The conservative ÖVP party justified its support for the law by explaining that the adopted text was framed by serious restrictions, and that it guaranteed at the same time the right to self-determination defended by the Constitutional Court, in the words of Michaela Steinacker, the ÖVP spokesperson for justice. The FPÖ, on the other hand, pointed out the many grey areas in the text, and the enormous psychological pressure lying on the shoulders of those who will be forced to perform assisted suicide.
Austria thus joins the Benelux countries and Spain, which have also already authorized assisted suicide. Justice Minister Alma Zadić (Greens) made it clear that “the path to death” should never be a priority choice, and that it was important that other solutions be provided. A budget of €108 million has been allocated to palliative care. This budget will be spread over three years and will be covered by the federal government, the states, and the municipalities.
Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).