Dutch ponder 'mercy killing' rules
(CNN) -- Dutch health officials are considering guidelines doctors could follow for euthanizing terminally ill people "with no free will," including children, the severely mentally retarded and patients in irreversible comas.
Netherlands was the first country to legalize euthanasia -- ending the life of someone suffering from a terminal illness or an incurable condition, with their approval.
In recent years there also have been reports of mercy killings of terminally ill babies, and officials at one hospital say a number have been carried out there.
The Royal Dutch Medical Association (KNMG) has asked the Netherlands Ministry of Health to create an independent board to evaluate euthanasia cases for each category of people "with no free will."
Doctors now follow legal standards regarding euthanasia, or assisted suicide, for patients who are able to make such a decision on their own.
Under the rules established by KNMG and the Dutch courts, the patient's decision must be freely made, well-considered and persistent; there must be unbearable suffering; and the attending physician should consult with a colleague.
There are no official guidelines for ending the lives of those who are unable to make their own decision, such as in the case of a baby, but Groningen Academic Hospital has conducted such procedures under its own, internal guidelines.
Dr. Eduard Verhagen, clinical director of the hospital's pediatric clinic, told NPR in an interview that the babies who had been euthanized were born with incurable conditions that were so serious "(we) felt that the most humane course would be to allow the child to die and even actively assist them with their death."
"They are very rare cases of extreme suffering. In these cases, the diagnosis was extreme spina bifada."
That disorder is marked by incomplete development of the brain, spinal cord and/or their protective coverings.
Because the procedure was not legal, Verhagen said, the hospital preferred that cases be assessed by a committee of experts. The Dutch parliament legalized euthanasia for adults in 2002.
"What we would like to happen here in Holland is that we put the spotlight on these decisions because they need to be extremely secure, and instead of taking these positions in a kind of gray area, we want them to be in the spotlight," the doctor said.
Eric Van Yijlick, project manager for SCEN (Support and Consultation on Euthanasia in the Netherlands), said the Groningen cases involving newborns should be referred to as "life ending without request" rather than euthanasia, because that term indicates the dying party has requested the procedure.
Van Yijlick said that to his knowledge, the killing of newborns is not common -- just a few cases yearly. No official statistics exist on terminally ill children's lives being terminated, he said.
New York Medical Producer Chris Gajilan contributed to this report.