More MS news articles for Jan 2002

Netherlands removes penalty for euthanasia

New law takes effect: Doctors will not be prosecuted for assisting suicide

January 2, 2002
National Post, with files from news services

AMSTERDAM - The Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalize euthanasia yesterday as a law giving terminally ill patients the right to end their lives came into effect.

This means that doctors no longer face prosecution for carrying out mercy killings if they are performed with due care.

The new law was passed by the Dutch senate in April despite demonstrations by church groups urging senators to "Trust in God, not the syringe."

In July, the United Nations Human Rights Committee criticized Dutch lawmakers for the move.

The committee's rapporteur, Eckart Klein, told the BBC the group feared that the growing number of assisted suicides could lead to them becoming routine.

"The main worry is not only the actual practice, but also the fact that this new law could create precedents that dilute the importance and trivialize this act," he said.

"The practitioner could become practically insensitive and the act trivialized."

The committee was also concerned about reports that medical personnel have ended the lives of new-born handicapped babies. The issue of applying the law to young people without parental consent has also been raised.

A proposal that was excluded from the bill would have allowed children as young as 12 to ask to be euthanized without consent from their parents being required.

Despite such concerns, polls have shown 85% of Dutch citizens favour legalizing mercy killings.

In fact, the new law will do little to change the way doctors and patients have operated in the Netherlands since the country's Supreme Court declared voluntary suicides to be acceptable in 1984.

The difference is that it finally removes the possibility of them being prosecuted for murder, cases in which it was often impossible to secure a conviction.

For example, last month a court found a doctor guilty only of malpractice for helping an 86-year-old former senator to die because he was tired of living.

The doctor was neither sentenced nor fined by the court.

It is estimated almost half of Dutch physicians have helped at least one patient to end their life.

In 2000, government figures show 2,000 people asked their doctors to help them die.

"This law will remove uncertainty for patients and for doctors," Els Borst, the Dutch Health Minister, told the senators in April.

Strict conditions apply, with regional review committees made up of legal, medical, and ethical experts judging each patient's request.

A second medical opinion will be needed, and the suffering of the patient must be deemed to be unbearable.

If there is any doubt that the rules were followed, the case will be referred to the public prosecutor.

The new law explicitly recognizes the validity of living wills -- advance declarations of a desire to undergo euthanasia in certain defined circumstances. They must be updated regularly and discussed with doctors.

The law's supporters, who include most parliamentarians, a majority of voters and nearly all doctors, are adamant that there is no danger of people suffering from Alzheimer's disease being killed, unless they have given explicit permission before their minds were clouded by their illness.

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