- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 29, 2005

AMSTERDAM — The Dutch government intends to expand its current euthanasia policy, setting guidelines for when doctors can end the lives of terminally ill newborns with parents’ consent.

A letter outlining the new directives will be submitted to parliament for discussion by mid-October, but the new policy will not require a vote or change of law, Dutch Health Ministry spokeswoman Annette Dijkstra said yesterday.

The Netherlands became the first nation to legalize euthanasia for adults under some conditions in 2001, and the latest move is likely to spark an outcry from the Vatican, pro-life proponents and advocacy groups for the handicapped.

Euthanasia is banned in most countries, although Belgium legalized it under strict conditions in 2002. Switzerland allows passive assistance to terminally ill people who have expressed a wish to die.

In the United States, Oregon is alone in allowing physician-assisted suicide, but its law is under constant challenge and the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments against it Wednesday.

The change in Dutch policy is especially significant because it will provide the model for how the country treats other cases in which patients are unable to say whether they want to live or die, such as those involving the mentally retarded or elderly people who have become demented.

The governing conservative Christian Democrat Party — which fought legalization when it was in the opposition — will embrace the guidelines, known as the Groningen Protocol, drawn up last year by doctors at the Groningen University Medical Center.

Under the protocol, euthanasia would be permissible when a child is terminally ill with no prospect of recovery and suffering great pain, when two sets of doctors agree the situation is hopeless and when parents give their consent.

The Dutch Health Ministry has postponed this decision several times and wishes to control the release of information around the policy change, which is still being finalized.

But Miss Dijkstra confirmed the broad lines of the guidelines after details began leaking to the Dutch press and to some members of the medical community who have been involved in the long-running debate over the issue.

The government will establish a vetting commission — modeled on commissions currently in place for adult euthanasia — to determine whether conditions have been met in each case and to refer the case to public prosecutors if they have not. But unlike with adult euthanasia, prosecutors will not be bound to follow the commission’s judgment that conditions have been satisfied.

“The public prosecutor’s office will always make an independent decision,” Miss Dijkstra said. “The ending of a life must occur with the utmost of caution.”

American ethicist and pediatrician Dr. Chris Feudtner of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia said he hoped the Dutch government would rethink its position.

“I admire the Dutch desire for openness in addressing what is an incredibly difficult issue, but I categorically do not endorse ending people’s lives with the argument that it’s alleviating their suffering,” he said.

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