AMSTERDAM (Reuters Health) Nov 28 - Parliament in the Netherlands, where "mercy killings" have been tolerated for decades, voted on Tuesday to became the first country to legalize euthanasia.
The lower chamber of parliament voted 104 to 40 to approve a bill that allows physicians to help patients die under certain conditions. The law is expected to be put to a vote in the upper chamber next year, but approval there is seen as a formality.
Australia's Northern Territory legalized medically assisted suicide for terminally ill patients in 1996 but repealed the law the following year. Supporters of the Dutch bill, including many physicians, say that it champions patients' rights and brings a long-standing practice into the open. Opponents, including small Calvinist opposition parties, say they fear it could be abused.
A series of court rulings and government guidelines since the 1970s has given more leeway to physicians to help a patient die, but the criminal code was not amended. This gray area left open the possibility that physicians would be prosecuted for murder.
The new law sets out strict guidelines, demanding that adult patients must make a voluntary, well-considered and lasting request to die and must otherwise face a future of continuous and unbearable suffering. The physician must have informed the patient about his or her prospects and must have reached the firm conclusion that there was no reasonable alternative. A second physician must be consulted and the life must be ended in a medically appropriate way.
Religious opponents slammed the bill, drawing parallels with Nazi Germany and charging that the law could be abused. "The same line of reasoning is being used as in Germany in 1935....In the Netherlands your life is no longer safe," Bert Dorenbos of the Scream for Life pro-life organization told Reuters.
"If doctors are not hesitating to kill people, then they will not hesitate to withdraw medical treatment from people they do not like," he added. The main opposition Christian Democrats (CDA) and smaller Calvinist parties also opposed the law.
A leading proponent of the law, the Liberal D66 party, applauded the vote as an important step forward. "This is for people who are in great pain and have no prospect for recovery. These people want to die in a humane way, in a respectful way," parliamentary leader Thom DeGraaf told Reuters Television. The Royal Dutch Medical Association also supported the bill, saying it formalises in law procedures used by doctors for 20 years.
Dutch physicians helped 2,216 patients to die in 1999 through euthanasia or assisted suicide, the most recent figures from euthanasia organisations show. About 90% were cancer patients. The actual numbers are believed to be much higher, since about 60% of cases are not reported to the coroner because of fear of prosecution.
A highly controversial clause allowing children as young as 12 to choose
to die even if their parents disagreed was dropped earlier this year. Children
between the ages of 12 and 16 can ask for help to die only with parental
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