HOLLAND is the only country in the world where doctors openly practise euthanasia. Government statistics show that nearly 4,000 deaths a year are attributed to euthanasia. Unofficially, the figure is estimated to be more than 26,000.

Euthanasia is technically illegal but has been tolerated for at least 15 years as a result of sympathetic court rulings on "mercy killings". These include a case in 1973 where a doctor who helped her mother to die was given a suspended sentence of one week.

Doctors who assist in suicide or practise euthanasia are not prosecuted as long as they follow guidelines set out by the Rotterdam Criminal Court in 1981, which state that the patient must be experiencing unbearable physical or mental suffering and must personally take the decision to die.

The Dutch government is now backing a private member's bill which proposes to legalise assisted suicide and euthanasia by doctors, and is expected to become law in 2001.

A recent survey by the University of Rotterdam showed that 92 per cent of respondents supported the current situation, but pro-life groups have started to distribute anti-euthanasia "passports". These carry the words: "I request that no medical treatment be withheld on the grounds that the future quality of my life will be diminished, because I believe that this is not something that human beings can judge. I request that under no circumstances a life-ending treatment be administered because I am of the opinion that people do not have the right to end life."

The Dutch Physicians Association is against voluntary euthanasia and claims doctors opposed to the practice are frightened to speak out for fear of losing their jobs. The association, with a predominantly Christian membership, has told its 500 members not to mention their views when applying for a job.