Euthanasia is legalised in Netherlands

The Netherlands has become the first nation to legalise euthanasia, after the Dutch parliament voted to allow doctors to end the lives of patients suffering unbearably without hope, despite protests from the "pro-life" lobby.

The Netherlands has become the first nation to legalise euthanasia, after the Dutch parliament voted to allow doctors to end the lives of patients suffering unbearably without hope, despite protests from the "pro-life" lobby.

Even though the vote was seen as a formality, an estimated 10,000 people gathered outside in one last show of discontent. Many sang hymns and quoted the Bible, then marched silently past the building where 75 members of the Dutch Senate debated the proposal.

The vote last night endorsed the Bill approved by the lower house in November, by 46 to 28, with one person absent. It needed a majority of 50 per cent plus one vote, or 38, to become law.

Before the vote, Els Borst, the Health Minister, reassured legislators the bill could not be abused by doctors because of careful supervisory provisions.

"There are sufficient measures to eliminate those concerns," Borst told the senators. Euthanasia, she said, will remain a last resort for those who have no other choice but endless suffering.

The Bill is likely to take effect this summer. The law will formalise a practice discreetly used in Dutch hospitals and homes for decades, turning guidelines adopted by Parliament in 1993 into legally binding requirements. Doctors can still be punished if they fail to meet the law's strict codes.

Those guidelines presuppose a long relationship between the doctor and the patient, and exclude the possibility of euthanasia for non-residents of the Netherlands.

Outside the parliament building, some protesters stood masked in black balaclavas and carried oversized syringes dripping with blood-red liquid. Others gathered signatures for a petition that already had 25,000 names. Several Christian schools cancelled classes to allow students from across the country to participate.

One protester, 19-year-old Henrico van der Hoek, said: "We don't have the right to decide about matters of life and death, but God does.

"As Christians, we simply cannot support this law."

Van der Hoek, who belongs to the Dutch Reformed Church, admitted he is one of a small minority in the Netherlands, which was once a stronghold of Christian politics.

After the vote, protesters said they were disappointed but not surprised. Piet Huurman, 69, of the Cry for Life protest group, said: "The tide will turn back someday. They will realise they have made a terrible mistake."

In the weeks preceding the debate, the upper house was swamped with an unusual number of letters, about 60,000, urging the Bill to be scrapped.

Under the law, a patient would have to be enduring irremediable and unbearable suffering, be aware of all other medical options and have sought a second professional opinion. The request would have to be made voluntarily, persistently and independently while the patient is of sound mind. Doctors are not supposed to suggest it as an option.

Several countries ­ including Switzerland, Colombia and Belgium ­ already tolerate euthanasia. In the United States, the state of Oregon has allowed doctor-assisted suicide for the terminally ill since 1996, but its law is more restrictive than the Dutch bill.

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