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Tolerated for years, euthanasia made legal
from the Columbus Dispatch, April 11, 2001
By: Carol J. Williams

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands - In a groundbreaking decision three decades in the making, the Dutch Senate yesterday approved a terminally ill patient’s right to suicide and a doctor’s immunity from prosecution for assisting.

The decision, which makes the Netherlands the first country to legalize euthanasia, stirred an eleventh-hour outbreak of religious and conservative opposition. But it had the support of nearly 90 percent of Dutch citizens.

Euthanasia has been tolerated here for years, but the majority of citizens and health-care professionals wanted a legal framework to protect physicians. Until now, assisting in the death of a person was a criminal offense punishable by as many as 12 years in prison, though no one has served time for it since the 1970s.

This law will remove the uncertainly for patients and for doctors,” Health Minister Els de Borst told the Senate before its 46-28 decision to approve the bill endorsed by the lower house of parliament in November. The law will take effect as soon as it is signed by Queen Beatrix and published in official journals technicalities expected to take two weeks.

Justice Minister Benk Korthals also hailed the legislation as an end to the legal limbo in which doctors have found themselves: Society clearly supported the right to assisted suicide but the penal code didn’t

The Senate action culminated a 27-year campaign by the Dutch Voluntary Euthanasia Society, which praised the legislature's action as a courageous step.

“This is an important and sensitive decision, and concerns about abuse are unfounded,” said the society’s managing director, Rob Jonquiere. “Abuse is only possible when there is no legal framework, which is the problem we resolved today.”

Outside the Senate building in The Hague, however, several thousand demonstrators hoisted placards denouncing euthanasia as "murder" and “Nazi morality.”

“It is dangerous and unworthy for a civilized society if doctors are allowed to kill It could put people under pressure to choose death,” warned Kars Veling, a senator from the Christian Union party, which opposed the legislation

The Dutch have struggled for 30 years to find a socially acceptable balance between granting citizens the right to end their lives and getting so far afield of other countries as to become a magnet for “suicide tourism.”

Although the new law is clearly designed for the Dutch, it has no iron-clad protections against foreign visitors availing themselves of the worlds only legal euthanasia services.

Australian doctor Philip Nitschke told Dutch Radio last week that he plans to buy a Dutch-registered ship and establish an offshore suicide clinic in international waters outside his home near Darwin. Australia’s Northwest Territory legalized assisted suicide in 1996, and Nitschke is the only doctor there known to have euthanized patients before the law was revoked six months later.

“A psychological barrier has “been broken with the legalization of voluntary euthanasia,” Deborah Annetts, director of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society in Britain, said.

The Dutch action also could rekindle debate about the fate of U.S. assisted-suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian, who was convicted of murder after euthanizing a patient on national television. Oregon is the only state to have legalized euthanasia.

Under the new law, a patient has to be experiencing unbearable suffering, have been informed of other medical options and been advised by at least one other doctor besides the one offering suicide assistance. The statute also recognizes the validity of written re-quests or living wills leaving the decision up to a physician if the patient becomes too debilitated.

The Dutch are known for their liberal views on social issues. A law that took effect April 1 gives same-sex unions the same rights and protections as other marriages.