World News

Uruguay approves "right to die" for terminally ill

MONTEVIDEO (Reuters) - Uruguay’s Congress passed a law Tuesday allowing terminally ill patients to refuse life-prolonging treatments in a rare victory for “right-to-die” advocates in predominantly Roman Catholic Latin America.

Congress members vote to approve a law that would allow people who are terminally ill or who have a terminally ill spouse or blood relative, in the case of the patient's incapacity, to stop medical treatment and allow the patient to die, at the Uruguayan Congress in Montevideo, March 17, 2009. REUTERS/Andres Stapff

After an intense debate that sparked a brief fistfight, Uruguay’s lower house of Congress voted in favour of the bill, echoing a similar measure approved by Mexican lawmakers late last year.

“If a person is dying, the law says ‘let me die with dignity, stop imposing therapeutic measures and let me die with dignity,’” Congressman Washington Abdala told reporters.

“This reflects the right of the patient and also the right of the doctor ... to act in this way,” he added.

The measure was not seen conflicting with a national ban on euthanasia.

Under the new law, which the president must put into effect, people can stipulate in advance that they do not want to receive life-prolonging treatments in case of grave illness.

If a terminally ill patient is unconscious, however, relatives can move to suspend treatments that offer no cure.

Uruguay’s centre-left president, Tabare Vazquez, angered some of his supporters last November by following through on promises to veto a law decriminalizing abortions in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

His silence on the right-to-die bill was seen by some in Congress as a sign he will not oppose it.

Lawmakers in Mexico -- the world’s second-biggest Roman Catholic nation -- modified an existing law last year, allowing patients diagnosed as having less than six months to live to sign a document before witnesses suspending treatment.

In a right-to-die debate that divided Italy earlier this year, the Vatican spoke out against a court ruling that enabled doctors to stop force-feeding a woman who had been in a coma since 1992. The woman, Eluana Englaro, died in February.

Writing by Hilary Burke, Editing by Sandra Maler