- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 29, 2000

The Netherlands, which has tolerated mercy killing for decades, yesterday approved a bill to allow euthanasia in a step toward becoming the first country to formally legalize the practice.

The bill, which passed the lower house of the Dutch parliament on a 104-40 vote, still needs to be approved by the Dutch Senate, but that is considered a formality. The bill is expected to become law next year.

The measure sets out strict guidelines, requiring that adult patients must face a future of continuous and unbearable suffering and make a voluntary, well-considered and lasting request to die.

Advocates of physician-assisted suicide hailed the measure as a humane measure to end suffering of terminally ill patients, while critics, led by the Vatican, said it amounted to legalized murder.

It "violates the dignity of human beings" and "goes against the natural law of individual conscience," said Joaquin Navarro Valls, Vatican spokesman.

The vote was also contrary to a document on European principles on medical ethics signed in 1987 by 12 European countries, he said.

Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. National Conference of Bishops said yesterday that the Netherlands' move continues down a "slippery slope" it began traveling on two decades ago.

"It will further encourage the killing of hopeless patients, including those who have no terminal or physical illness," he said.

He cited a case detailed in the Nov. 11, Lancet, in which a Dutch court acquitted a physician of assisting a patient in committing suicide who had no medical or psychiatric disorder.

The 86-year-old man had no friends or family left, and he "found life unbearable," and so he was helped to die, despite being found medically and psychologically sound.

Mr. Doerflinger said that according to the Dutch government's own figures, thousands of people in the Netherlands have been euthanized more than 70 percent of those put to death without having requested death.

He said doctors in the Netherlands have stopped training how to treat people with chronic pain, and as a result and hospice care has nearly disappeared.

"We don't have hospices in stables because we can shoot horses," he said.

The Dutch law provides physicians' guidelines, but a 1997 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association said guidelines in place since 1994 have been disregarded.

"Virtually every guideline set up by the Dutch a voluntary, well-considered, persistent request; intolerable suffering that cannot be relieved; consultation; and reporting of cases has failed to protect patients or has been modified or violated," said the article.

The euthanasia of a Catholic nun who was dying of cancer was cited as one example. The article said she was euthanized without her consent because the physician decided that she would not consent to death due to her religious convictions.

The state of Oregon passed an assisted-suicide bill in 1994 that was subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court.

Thirty-four states have restricted assisted suicide or defeated Oregon-type laws since 1994, most recently in the Nov. 7 election, when Maine rejected a law to make assisted suicide legal.

"The Supreme Court has strongly rejected [arguments of a] the constitutional right to physician assisted suicides," said Edward Larson, a law professor and authority on assisted suicide at the University of Georgia.

"The spectacle of Holland is causing caution. The Supreme Court kept saying 'Look at Holland. We could become like Holland.' "

Opponents in the Netherlands, including small Calvinist opposition parties, say they fear the proposed law could be abused. Some drew parallels with Nazi Germany.

"The same line of reasoning is being used as in Germany in 1935… . In the Netherlands, your life is no longer safe," said Bert Dorenbos of the Scream for Life group.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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