Holland is first country to legalise euthanasia

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The Independent Online

The Netherlands became the first country in the world formally to legalise euthanasia yesterday, when the lower house of parliament approved a "mercy killing" Bill by a two-thirds majority.

The Netherlands became the first country in the world formally to legalise euthanasia yesterday, when the lower house of parliament approved a "mercy killing" Bill by a two-thirds majority.

Under the controversial new law, doctors will be immune from prosecution provided they follow strict guidelines, when performing euthanasia. The Bill now goes to the Dutch upper house, the Senate, for approval before becoming law.

Following vociferous protests while the Bill was being debated, the Dutch coalition government dropped a proposal to allow terminally ill children as young as 12 to decide on euthanasia against their parents' wishes.

But, taking the view that minors "have the capacity to make an informed judgement", parliament has declared incurably ill teenagers aged 16 and above eligible for euthanasia without parental consent. The Bill also recognises the legal validity of written declarations of wishes concerning the termination of life.

Euthanasia has been the subject of a 25-year debate in the Netherlands, pitting right-to-die campaigners and the medical profession against Holland's religious communities. They are outraged by the new law claiming it "will open the floodgates" and give their doctors "a licence to kill".

"Only God can decide when life ends," warned a Calvinist Party leader, Menno de Bruijn. "Already many old and lonely people are made to feel there is no point in living, now those suffering from dementia will be at increased risk of having others decide on whether they live or die." The Christian Democrats also opposed the Bill.

Euthanasia has been tolerated in the Netherlands for decades. There are at least 3,000 plus "assisted deaths" a year, representing about 2.3 per cent of all deaths. Although termination of life on request has technically remained a criminal act, it was permitted in practice if doctors fulfilled strict criteria set out in a 28-point reporting procedure.

The Bill restates that the patient must be in intolerable pain, face "a future of unremitting and unbearable suffering" and must make the request. There must be no reasonable alternative solution to the patient's situation; their doctor must always consult another independent physician and the euthanasia must be performed with due medical care.

Regional committees set up in 1997 will continue to review whether these criteria have been met and will be empowered to report any suspicious cases to the state prosecution service, parliament was told.

The 100,000 members of the Netherlands Voluntary Euthanasia Society and the Royal Dutch Medical Association welcomed the Bill as a victory for patients' rights. It was agenuine and courageous effort to remove Dutch policy on mercy killing from a legal grey area, they said.

Euthanasia is effectively decriminalised in Switzerland, Colombia and Belgium, but no country has actually legalised the practice. It is illegal in the United States, although voters in the state of Oregon approved doctor-assisted suicide for the terminally ill in 1994.

The Vatican condemned the Bill. "It is a very sad record for the Netherlands to become first to want to approve a law that goes against human dignity," said the Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls. He said the law went against international declarations on medical ethics that had been adopted for years by the medical community.

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