LONDON (Reuters Health) Apr 10 - Supporters and opponents of euthanasia predicted on Tuesday that the Netherlands could be the first of many countries to legalizing euthanasia, which will decriminalize something that Dutch physicians have been doing for the past 30 years.
However, the greater impact may be felt beyond Dutch borders where it could open up the floodgates for similar legislation in other countries. "It is of major significance to other countries, particularly in Europe. A psychological barrier has been broken with the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia," said Deborah Annetts, the director of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society in Britain.
Advocates of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide believe the impact will ripple across Europe. In Belgium, a similar draft law has already been presented and could be approved by parliament later this year.
France, Britain, Australia and Italy have strong euthanasia movements, which could benefit from the Dutch decision. Catalonia in Spain has also passed legislation approving living wills, Annetts said.
In the US, where prominent euthanasia advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian was convicted of murdering a man after he filmed the death and released it for national broadcast, the Dutch law could reopen the debate on euthanasia. The state of Oregon already allows physician-assisted suicide.
"There is an international movement at the moment which is bound up with greater choice for everyone and a shift in the relationship between doctor and patient which is being voiced by the general public," Annetts said in an interview.
The Dutch, who have set an international example with their tolerant attitudes about sex and soft drugs, have now provided guidelines for euthanasia which other nations could adopt to suit their needs. "Once one country has accepted the principle and laid it down in law, having gone through the legislative process, the question must be 'why can't other countries do the same?' " Annetts said.
Martine Cornelisse, a psychologist and member of the Dutch Euthanasia Society that has been fighting to get the bill passed, said it includes important safety measures.
"It will be an interesting example for other countries to follow," she told Reuters. "Countries with the same kind of culture and the same level of public health standards might follow us."
According to the Dutch law, the request to die must be free and well-considered. Patients must be suffering intolerably without the prospect of getting better. An independent physician must be consulted and cases of euthanasia must be reported.
But Dr. Michael Howitt, a former family doctor and the deputy chairman of the British anti-euthanasia group ALERT, fears that despite the safeguards the law will be open for abuse and will start a domino effect around the globe.
"There is a great risk that it will," he said. "It is a real setback [for the anti-euthanasia movement]."
Although euthanasia is not legal in other countries, Cornelisse said research has shown it is not uncommon. She believes the Dutch law could bring it more out into the open and stimulate debate.
"In an open and tolerant
society people should have a choice, that choice might be a choice for
euthanasia," she said, adding that doctors should be able to honor a request
to die without feeling like a criminal.
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