Legalising the right to die: Landmark Euthanasia law enters force in the Netherlands

The Netherlands today becomes the first country to officially allow the mercy killing of a suffering patient, with the introduction of new legislation concerning the right to die.

Euthanasia has been practiced in the European state for around two decades, with doctors assisting patients to die in cases where the patient actively sought a premature death to escape from their suffering. However in April 2001, the Dutch Senate approved a new law – officially granting patients the right to die. The lower house of parliament approved the bill last November, and after receiving the royal signature, the law was officially passed, free to come into force on April 1st 2002.

The new legislation includes many safeguards to ensure that doctors cannot act on their own initiative: patients must be enduring periods of “continuous, unbearable, incurable suffering”, and they must make independent, persistent and well-considered requests for an early end to their life. A “second opinion” from another doctor must also be obtained. Not only does the law clarify euthanasia from the point of view of the patient– but also from the perspective of medical staff – who will also be pleased that they are no longer left open to legal action from relatives of a patient whom they have helped to die: “We have a good law at last,” - claimed former family doctor and head of the the Dutch Association for Voluntary Euthanasia, Rob Jonquiere.

However, although the law is reported to enjoy the support of over 90% of the Dutch population, it has been subject to considerable criticism. An estimated 10,000 protestors stood in silence outside the Hague when the Senate voted on the new law – and religious groups have also voiced their disapproval of the ability of the doctor to “play God”. Serious concerns have also been raised outside the country – with many foreign observers, especially those from neighboring Germany, seeing the legislation as similar to Hitler’s Aktion T4 program – which saw thousands of handicapped children and mentally ill adults put to death by the Nazi regime before and during the Second World War. The United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHCR) are also worried by the new law, claiming last July that the new laws could mean it becomes easier and easier to prematurely end a patients life – with doctors “desensitised” to the reality of such an action. The UNHCR also voiced severe concerns over the fact that the lives of children as young as 12 could be ended upon parental support for their child’s requests to a premature death.

The further widening of access to euthanasia also seems possible, with the Dutch Health minister claiming last July that the elderly should have access to a “suicide pill” so as to end their own life when they saw fit. Claims of possible “euthanasia tourism” - with Europeans travelling to Holland to be relieved of their suffering - have also been raised, a problem highlighted by an Italian investigation into just such a phenomenon. The reality of such “tourism”, though, has been denied by the Dutch government which claims that the necessity of a close patient-doctor relationship precludes any such possibility.

While the openness of the Dutch may have seen their country become the first in the world to introduce such a ground-breaking law, Russia’s stance on the new law seems somewhat more conservative. In interview with PRAVDA.RU, the Deputy of the State Duma (Russian parliament) responsible for such questions, Mikhail Rokitskii, poured scorn on any swift introduction of such a bill in the Russian parliament, and believed that any such legislation would fail to win a majority of public support. Mr Rokitskii also cast doubt on the viability of such a law in Russia: “While the country remains in a state of transition, and the economy not fully on its feet, I believe that the introduction of such a law would be dangerous”, said the member of the Committee for Sport and the Protection of Health.

However, other countries though look set to follow the lead of the Netherlands. Belgium approved primary legislation for the introduction of euthanasia last October and France’s Health Minister has also spoken of his intention to pass a new law on the Dutch model. The euthanasia debate also continues to rage in both Australia and Britain – the latter recently seeing a terminally-ill woman to win the right to die in a ground-breaking court-case last month.

Tom Wishart (Great Britain) PRAVDA.Ru trainee Moscow office

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