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How do Austria’s new plans on assisted suicide compare to others in Europe?

As Austria sets out its plan for legalising assisting suicide from 2022 in response to a court ruling, we look at how this compares to other countries' legislation on euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Hands touching
According to Austria's plans, two doctors will have to assess each assisted dying case, one of whom will have to be qualified in palliative medicine. Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

According to a summary of the proposed legislation from the Austrian justice ministry, adults who are terminally ill or suffer from a permanent and debilitating condition will be able to access help with ending their own lives.

Two doctors will have to assess each case, one of whom will have to be qualified in palliative medicine.

Among their duties will be to determine whether the patient is capable of coming to the decision independently.

In addition, at least 12 weeks will have to pass before access is granted to make sure euthanasia is not being sought due to a temporary crisis.

READ ALSO: Austria sets out plans for legalising assisted suicide

Where is it fully legal in Europe?
The Netherlands legalised active and direct euthanasia in 2002.

Lethal doses of drugs are authorised if patients make the request while lucid.

They must also be experiencing unbearable suffering from a condition diagnosed as incurable by at least two doctors.

Last year, the country’s highest court ruled that doctors would be able to conduct assisted suicides on patients with severe dementia without fear of prosecution, even if the patient no longer expressed an explicit death wish.

The Netherlands also moved towards making euthanasia legal for terminally ill children aged between one and 12.

EXPLAINED: How foreigners can access assisted suicide in Switzerland

Belgium lifted restrictions on euthanasia in 2002 for patients facing constant, unbearable and untreatable physical or psychological suffering.

They must be aged 18 or over and request termination of life in a voluntary, reasoned and repeated manner, free from coercion.

In 2014, Belgium became the first country to authorise children to request euthanasia if they suffer a terminal disease and understand the consequences of the act.

In Luxembourg a text legalising euthanasia in certain terminal cases was approved in 2009. It excludes minors.

In Spain, the Spanish parliament voted through a law allowing euthanasia under strict conditions on Thursday March 8th, so terminally ill or gravely injured patients could end their own suffering.

The law came into effect in June 2021, making it the fourth European country to decriminalise euthanasia.

Swiss exception
Switzerland is one of the rare countries that allows assisted suicide with patients administering a lethal dose of medication themselves.

READ MORE: What you need to know about assisted suicide in Switzerland

It does not allow active, direct euthanasia by a third party but tolerates the provision of substances to relieve suffering, even if death is a possible consequence.

Australian scientist David Goodall (C) leaves in a wheelchair after a press conference on May 9th, 2018, on the eve of his assisted suicide in Basel. He was barred from seeking help to end his life in Australia, so he was forced to travel to Switzerland. Photo: SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP

Decriminalisation attempt blocked in Portugal
In March, Portugal’s top court rejected a law decriminalising euthanasia that had been approved by parliament in January saying it was too imprecise.

The bill, which would have legalised access to assisted suicide for adult patients in a situation of “extreme suffering and irreversible damage”, now goes back to parliament for a possible amendment.

Italian compromise
Italy’s Constitutional Court ruled in 2019 it was not always a crime to help someone in “intolerable suffering” commit suicide. Parliament is set to debate a change in the law banning the practice.

The halting of medical procedures that maintain life, called passive euthanasia, is also tolerated.

In August 2021, more than 750,000 people in Italy signed a petition calling for the legalisation of euthanasia, exceeding by far the half-a-million threshold needed to force a referendum on the issue.

A vote could be held as early as next year on the campaign, which calls for changes to the country’s laws on assisted dying.

Centenarian Helene Wuillemin, seen here at her flat in Laxou, eastern France, went on hunger strike after her applications for euthanasia in Switzerland and Belgium were rejected. Photo :JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN/AFP

‘Right to die’
In France, a 2005 law legalised passive euthanasia as a “right to die”. A 2016 law allows doctors to couple this with “deep and continuous sedation” for terminally ill patients, while keeping euthanasia and assisted suicide illegal.

In April 2021, a bill to legalise euthanasia could not be voted on as planned due to the number of amendments submitted.

Sweden authorised passive euthanasia in 2010 and Ireland also recognises the “right to die”.

Britain has allowed medical personnel to halt life-preserving treatment in certain cases since 2002. Prosecution of those who have helped a close relative die, after clearly expressing the desire to end their lives, has receded since 2010.

In Germany, passive euthanasia is permitted if requested by the patient. In January 2021, the country’s parliament proposed new legislation that would allow assisted suicide for terminally ill adults once they have received counselling.

Refusing treatment
Denmark has allowed people to file written refusal of excessive treatment in dire situations since 1992, with the document held in a centralised register.

In Norway, passive euthanasia is permitted if requested by the patient or by a relative, if the patient is unconscious.

In Hungary, people with incurable diseases can refuse treatment.

It is also legal to end treatment for terminally ill people in Lithuania and Latvia.

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AUSTRIAN CITIZENSHIP

Could presidential criticism lead to Austrian citizenship rule changes?

Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen has hit out at Austria's naturalisation process, saying "the hurdles are too high". But how hard is it to get Austrian citizenship - and will the criticism lead to change?

Could presidential criticism lead to Austrian citizenship rule changes?

Austria’s federal president Alexander Van der Bellen, who is eyeing a second term in office in the autumn elections, has said that the hurdles for citizenship are too high in the alpine country.

“Citizenship is a valuable asset. I think the hurdles for obtaining it are too high.”, he said in an interview with the newspaper Kleine Zeitung.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How does Austria’s presidential election work?

Van der Bellen mentioned a case with a German citizen who has lived in Austria for 20 years and cannot obtain dual citizenship: “He can vote neither here nor there. And that is the European Union?”

Austria does not allow for dual citizenship of naturalised citizens except in very few cases (including naturalisation of those who are descendants of Holocaust victims).

This is one of the many hurdles to citizenship in the country.

What makes Austrian citizenship so difficult to get?

Citizenship through naturalisation, meaning you are not the son or daughter of an Austrian citizen, is particularly hard to get.

First of all, the majority of applicants will need to give up any other citizenships they hold. So, a British citizen taking Austrian nationality through marriage or residence time will have to give up their British passport.

READ ALSO: Which European countries have the toughest rules for gaining citizenship?

Besides severing that connection to a home country where people might still have many ties, this can lead to difficulties in matters of inheritance and property ownership, for example.

The naturalisation process is also long and expensive in Austria. In Vienna, the application costs €130. If successful, the new Austrian citizen can expect to pay from € 1,100 to € 1,500 just for the award – that doesn’t include costs with documentation, translation, and issuance of documents such as an Austrian passport.

The length of the process varies, but it can take more than a year for citizenship to be awarded.

The requirements will also be different depending on how long the person is legally an Austrian resident and what is their connection to the country.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Will my children get an Austrian passport if born in Austria?

For example, after 30 years of residence in Austria, you need to prove you are not a danger to the country and that you can support yourself.

You also need to prove German skills and pass a citizenship test.

The minimum amount of time of legal residency after which you can require citizenship is six years for people who fall into specific categories, such as legal and uninterrupted residence in Austria and possession of the citizenship of an EEA state, birth in Austria or German at a B2 level.

Will Austria change its citizenship rules?

It is improbable that there will be any significant changes soon. Despite Van der Bellen’s statements, citizenship laws are not within the federal president’s competence and mostly depend on legislative changes.

The party leading the ruling coalition, ÖVP, is against any changes, claiming that making the process easier would “depreciate” Austrian citizenship.

READ ALSO: ​​Why has naturalisation in Austria doubled in 2022 – and who are the new citizens?

Austria has recently seen a jump in naturalisation numbers, but that can largely be viewed as a one-off phenomenon after changes in the process for descendants of Nazi victims.

While junior partner Greens have been in favour of easing some rules, little is expected to happen with the ÖVP in power. The next parliamentary elections are set for 2024, though. If the SPÖ continues climbing in the polls, an SPÖ-Green coalition could push forward different rules.

Also, if the Red-Green-Yellow ruling coalition in Germany does succeed in easing naturalisation rules in the neighbouring country, Austria could see further pressure for domestic changes.

But that remains to be seen, mainly depending on the 2024 election results.

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