General view of Spain's parliament. | Javier Lizon/Reuters

Spain's new left-wing government submitted to parliament yesterday a bill that would allow euthanasia and assisted suicide in certain cases, reigniting a bitter debate on whether to decriminalise both practices.

Euthanasia involves a physician taking an active role in ending a patient's life whereas in assisted suicide the doctor provides a lethal substance for the patient to self administer.

Under the current law, helping someone end their life carries a jail term of up to 10 years, but 84% of Spaniards are in favour of decriminalisation, according to a 2018 national opinion poll.

After two previous attempts to change the law failed due to a lack of support and the premature end of the previous legislature last year, the government now has an almost guaranteed majority through the support of the centre-right Ciudadanos and a handful of smaller parties.

"We're talking about clearly debilitating diseases without a cure, without a solution and which cause significant suffering," government spokeswoman Maria Jesus Montero said yesterday, adding that doctors who object to the practice will be able to opt out.

The Catholic Church - historically a lodestar for public opinion in Spain - considers euthanasia to be morally wrong, and the main conservative opposition People's Party (PP) and far-right Vox also want it to remain a criminal offence.

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But the church's influence has been on the wane ever since Francisco Franco's dictatorship ended in 1975.

Vox spokeswoman Rocio Monasterio said her party would mount 'fierce' resistance to the bill, which she said would allow people whose life was no longer considered useful to be 'eliminated'.

Euthanasia has attracted much attention in Spain, which has one of the world's highest life expectancies, particularly since the 2004 film Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside) catapulted the issue into the national spotlight.

The Spanish film tells the story of how Ramon Sampedro, a paralysed man who for decades campaigned for the legal right to die, committed assisted suicide after courts denied him that right.

Neighbouring Portugal is also debating legalising euthanasia and the ruling Socialists and two other political parties including the Left Bloc have submitted separate proposals, which the Portuguese parliament is likely to approve. Opponents however have collected thousands of signatures demanding a referendum.

Within Europe, euthanasia and assisted suicide are allowed in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium in certain circumstances and under strict local regulations.