Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Terri Schiavo drama has focused renewed attention on the euthanasia law in the Netherlands, one of the most liberal anywhere, where physicians get the major say in assisted suicide.

Boudewijn van Eenennaam, the Dutch ambassador to the United States, disputes assertions that Dutch euthanasia guidelines have put his country on a slippery slope toward state-assisted “murder.”

In a luncheon interview yesterday with editors and reporters at The Washington Times, Mr. van Eenennaam emphasized that he takes no position on how U.S. courts and medical authorities should deal with Mrs. Schiavo’s illness. The disagreement between her husband and her parents, he said, presents unusual difficulties.

Under Dutch euthanasia law, the advice of medical experts in similar cases “weighs very heavily in the final decision.”

Critics of the Dutch law have raised alarms over a new drive by Dutch medical authorities to authorize euthanasia in cases in which a patient hasn’t given his consent, and in cases of mental suffering not based on physical ailments.

The Netherlands’ government and courts have not agreed to expand the euthanasia guidelines.

Mr. van Eenennaam said there were “many misperceptions” about Dutch medical practices, and that his country has never tried to impose its practices on other countries. “There is no absolute right to euthanasia.”

He argued that the Dutch law, the product of a broad and intense debate, has given patients, families and doctors clear guidelines while safeguarding against abuse of the law.

“At least we have been able by a debate in our parliament to nail down our approach” to the euthanasia question, the ambassador said. “We consider that a strong point on our part.”

In the wide-ranging interview, he discussed the challenges of assimilating the Netherlands’ growing Muslim minority; predicted a very close vote in June on whether the Dutch should adopt a new European Union constitution; and said the Netherlands “would not be in a hurry” to lift the EU embargo on arms sales to China.

The Netherlands’ reputation for tolerance and “openness” has come under severe strain over tensions involving the country’s Muslim minority. Dutch society, he said, has come to realize that immigration “not only strengthens society, there are risks involved.”

The Netherlands has a long history of accepting and assimilating foreigners, from Jews expelled from Portugal and Spain to the Mayflower Pilgrims, and more recently Surinamese and Indonesians from the former Dutch colonies.

The recent arriving Muslim immigrants, many of whom were invited as “guest workers” from Turkey, Morocco and Algeria, present a new and different challenge.

“Almost without us noticing, we had schools in Rotterdam and The Hague that were 80 percent and 90 percent Muslim,” he said.

Today, in a nation of 16 million, there are 1.6 million Muslims, many of whom are second- and third-generation Dutch citizens whose parents and grandparents were guest workers who arrived to stay.

The mistake, he said, was that the Muslim immigrants had been welcomed to the Netherlands with almost no conditions. There was no requirement that they learn the Dutch language or assimilate into the European culture.

“We were too tolerant. … There is strong support that Islam in the Netherlands will have to adapt to the Netherlands,” he said. The native Dutch must accommodate the newcomers as well. “I do think the Dutch population should be open a little more.”

He noted that a government video showing topless women on a beach and homosexuals embraced in a kiss, meant to demonstrate the reality of life in an open and permissive culture, had been edited to avoid offending prospective Muslim immigrants.

The Schiavo case has focused attention on the Netherlands’ assisted-suicide law, which is alien to Muslim cultures. The 2002 Dutch law sets down guidelines for doctors who administer lethal drugs to terminally ill patients to hasten death. A decision to administer the drugs must be reviewed by a medical panel and can be executed only when a patient requests it, or by doctors when a patient’s suffering is regarded as “unendurable” or without a prospect of improvement.

Mr. van Eenennaam said the United States and other countries face similarly difficult judgments about how to deal with suffering patients and children born with severe birth defects. The Netherlands is often singled out for criticism, he said, because it is open about its euthanasia practices.

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