Apr 01, 2002
By Abigail Levene
Euthanasia became legal on Monday in the Netherlands, the first country to permit mercy killing for the hopelessly ill who are desperate to die.
Opponents drew fearful parallels with Nazi Germany when the Dutch parliament voted last April to enshrine in law a practice the Netherlands had tolerated for two decades.
But Dutch doctors did not win a licence to kill. They must obey strict rules or still be liable for prosecution.
Patients must face a future of unbearable, interminable suffering--being "weary of life" does not suffice--and they must make a voluntary, well-considered request to die.
Doctor and patient must be convinced there is no other solution, another physician must be consulted and life must be ended in a medically appropriate way. An expert panel examines the case after the death, and will report to the public prosecutor if it has doubts the doctor acted properly.
The landmark law has reverberated well beyond Dutch borders to countries as far away as Australia.
Belgium has already moved in the same direction. Senators there voted in October in favour of a draft law setting conditions under which doctors may help the terminally ill die.
French Health Minister Bernard Kouchner, a doctor by training, said last year he would use the Dutch decision to press for the legalisation of euthanasia in France, and has confessed to performing mercy killings himself in Vietnam and Lebanon.
Debate is also raging in Australia--whose Northern Territory became the first place in the world to legalise euthanasia in 1996 but saw the law overturned after nine months--where a bowel cancer sufferer is begging for help to die.
Australian grandmother Nancy Crick, 70, has chronicled her physical disintegration on the Internet and recently appealed for someone to give her a drug that would kill her painlessly.
And in Britain, where assisting a suicide is punishable by up to 14 years in jail, a paralysed woman last month won the right to die in a ground-breaking case.
Fellow Briton Diane Pretty, who has motor neurone disease and is seeking the legal right for her husband to help her die, is taking her case to the European Court of Human Rights after British courts refused to offer him immunity from prosecution.
Many still balk at euthanasia--not least in Germany, where Nazis exterminated thousands of handicapped children and mentally ill adults before and during World War II.
But Dutch doctors say the law alters little as it simply decriminalises a practice that has long been a reality. "It's a symbolic change," said Coot Kuipers, general practitioner in the southern village of Uden.
"For many terminally ill people, the simple fact they can choose to die is an immense consolation," she added.
The UN Human Rights Committee of independent experts criticised the Dutch law last July, saying it could lead to routine and insensitive mercy killing.
The committee said it was not convinced the Dutch system would detect and prevent cases where pressure could be exerted on a patient to evade the legal criteria.
It expressed concern that children aged 12 to 16 were eligible for euthanasia with parental backing and that checks were conducted only after patients died.
Fears of an influx of "euthanasia tourists" were fanned last year when Turin magistrates began probing an Italian suspected of helping terminally ill people travel to the Netherlands to die.
But the Dutch say the legal clause insisting doctor and patient must have a close relationship precludes such "tourism." The Dutch Voluntary Euthanasia Society (NVVE) says it fields many queries from foreigners but must always disappoint them.
"People from abroad have always thought it was easy to do it in the Netherlands, but in fact it's not," NVVE spokeswoman Walburg de Jong told Reuters.
NVVE data show 2,123 reported Dutch cases of euthanasia in 2000, though the true number is likely to be higher since it is thought not all cases are reported to the coroner.
Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok has called it "bloody nonsense" to say doctors have a licence to kill.
But Health Minister Els Borst raised eyebrows when she said just days after the euthanasia law was passed that very old people who were sick of life should be allowed a suicide pill.
A Dutch doctor was convicted last December because he assisted the 1998 death of a former senator who was "tired of life." He was not given a prison sentence because the court ruled that he acted out of compassion for his patient.
Though the new law was not yet in force, the court considered the legislation
in reaching its judgment in what was seen as a test case seeking to define
the limits of euthanasia.
Copyright © 2002 Reuters Limited