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Euthanasia now legal in Holland

Euthanasia now legal in Holland

AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands -- Euthanasia became legal in the Netherlands on Monday, the first country to allow doctors to kill patients with terminal diseases who are suffering "unbearably."

There were protests last April when the Dutch parliament voted to legalise a practice which had been taking place unofficially for 30 years.

Though opponents drew parallels with Nazi Germany, Dutch doctors did not win a licence to kill. They must follow strict rules or face prosecution.

The new law insists patients must be adults, have made a voluntary, well-considered and lasting request to die, must be facing a future of unbearable suffering and that there must be no reasonable alternative.

A second doctor must be consulted, and life must be ended in a medically appropriate way.

Passage of the bill, which was opposed by conservative Christian political parties, ended a 30-year debate. But some parties said it did not go far enough and have made it an issue in the campaign for May 15 national elections.

Democrats 66, the party of Health Minister Els Borst, who guided the bill through parliament, says the next government should consider the introduction of a suicide pill for patients who are healthy but simply tired of life.

Euthanasia had been discreetly used in Dutch hospitals and homes for decades. In 1993, parliament adopted guidelines under which euthanasia could be conducted without fear of prosecution, even though it remained illegal.

Some doctors say the fact that euthanasia is allowed is often a sufficient comfort in itself.

"For many terminally ill people, the fact that they can choose to die is an immense consolation," general practitioner Coot Kuipers of the southern village of Uden told Reuters.

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 trained doctor, 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, 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 appealed for someone to give her a drug that would kill her painlessly.

Australia's Northern Territory became the first place in the world to legalise euthanasia in 1996 but saw the law overturned after nine months.

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, a motor neurone disease sufferer 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.

The U.N. Human Rights Committee of independent experts criticised the Dutch law last July, saying it could lead to a rush of routine and insensitive mercy killing.

The committee said it was not convinced the Dutch system could stop cases where pressure could be exerted on a patient to evade the legal criteria.

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 attracts many queries from foreign nationals 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.

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.


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