The Hague, Netherlands --- The Dutch parliament approved a bill legalizing euthanasia Tuesday, positioning the Netherlands to become the first nation in the world to openly allow the anti-life policy.
Advocates of euthanasiza voiced praise for the vote, but many Christian and pro-life groups and others condemned it, led by the Vatican, which said the law "violates human dignity."
Fending off concerns the Netherlands could become a haven for patients from abroad seeking to end their lives, Dutch officials stressed that foreigners would be unable to meet strict standards under the law for allowing euthanasia. "There is no possibility for foreigners to come here for euthanasia," said Wijnand Stevens of the Justice Ministry. "The criteria call for a long term doctor-patient relationship. They are just too strict for that."
All 100 seats in parliament's public gallery were full for Tuesday's vote, in which legislators announced their votes aloud as requested by a Christian political party opposed to the bill. After the 104-40 vote in Parliament's lower house, the bill was expected to win approval by the upper house early next year and become law.
"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 Dutch pro-life group Scream for Life. "If doctors are not hesitating to kill people then they will not hesitate to withdraw medical treatment from people they do not like," he added.
With the law, the Netherlands would formalize the tolerance it has long held toward euthanasia - thousands of cases are reported every year here and many more go unreported. In 1993, legislators passed a set of guidelines that doctors could follow to carry out euthanasia and - it was understood - go unprosecuted.
Still, euthanasia was a crime punishable by up to 12 years in prison. The new legislation largely adopts the informal guidelines, which say the patient must be feeling unrelenting suffering and know all the medical options.
"Doctors should not be treated as criminals. This will create security for doctors and patients alike," said Health Minister Els Borst, who drafted the bill. "Something as serious as ending one's life deserves openness," she said after the vote.
Switzerland, Colombia and Belgium tolerate euthanasia. Australia's Northern Territory approved the practice in 1996, but the federal Parliament revoked the law in 1997. Others, such as Denmark and Singapore, Canada and Australia, give patients the right to refuse life-prolonging treatment.
In Oregon, voters approved assisted suicide for the terminally ill in 1994. Since the law took affect in 1997, 43 people have died in assisted suicides there. The House of Representatives passed a pro-life bill, the Pain Relief Promotion Act, in October that would restrict assisted suicides, but it faces a possible veto.
In assisted suicides, the patient administers a lethal dose of medication to himself or herself. Under the new Dutch euthanasia law, a doctor may give it directly to the patient.
Opponents in the Dutch parliament denounced the bill, saying it challenges God's will by giving doctors the power to decide over life and death. "This a black day in the history of our Parliament," said lawmaker Bas van der Vlies of the State Reform Party SGP. "We believe as Christians that our lives are not in our hands, that we cannot ourselves decide. We must wait for God's leadership."
The Vatican said the law was "a sad record for Holland," and spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said it "violates human dignity."
"The first problem this law poses is a very serious question of conscience, which doctors will have to face up to," Navarro-Valls explained. "Again, we are faced with a law of the state which opposes the natural law of human conscience." He said the Dutch law went against international declarations on medical ethics that had been adopted for years by the medical community.
"It's cheaper to kill people than to take care of them," scoffed Lori Hougens of the Washington-based National Right to Life Committee, adding: "We are very, very saddened" by the law. "It could have a terrible impact around the world. When you tell people it's OK, it can change them," she said.
In the United States, the Denver-based Hemlock Society said the Netherlands' move was unlikely to help win legal approval for assisted suicide elsewhere. But the president said it could have an impact on U.S. public opinion. "We are very excited," said Faye Girsh. "We have admired what the people of Holland have been doing for the last 20 years. They have been carefully and openly helping people to die."
Under the new Dutch law, a patient must be undergoing unremitting and unbearable suffering, be aware of all other medical options and have sought a second professional opinion. The request must be made voluntarily, persistently and independently. But the bill does not stipulate that the patient's suffering must be physical and it also does not require the patient's disease be terminal. Pro-life advocates say these open up wide loopholes for abuse.
The Dutch vote was also condemned by Father Gino Concetti, a senior moral theologian at the Vatican whose thinking is close to that of Pope John Paul. "Life is inviolable," he explained. "So any law that destroys it or approves of its destruction is inhumane. This is an absurd decision that goes against the grain of thousands of years of European civilization and tramples the dignity of the human person."
"By making this choice, the Dutch parliament has opened a breach in the political and social order of the countries of the European Union and in other places where the issue is still being considered," Concetti noted. Catholic Church canon (law) 2,278 says extraordinary, costly and dangerous life-support systems for a terminally ill person can be discontinued at the patient's or family's request, but actively ending a life is always morally unacceptable.
The lawyer for Jack Kevorkian, jailed by U.S. authorities last year for televising a euthanasia, said he was happy about the Dutch action. "He's very pleased that the law has been enacted in the Netherlands for assisted suicide and feels that such a law, of course, is humane and that it's appropriate under the proper guidelines," Mayer Morganroth told Reuters.
He said Kevorkian, now 72, believes that within the next three to five years assisted suicide will start to be allowed under laws in the United States.
But Rita Marker, executive director of the International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force, said the law would send a dangerous signal. "It will be like giving the household seal of approval. What is currently a crime will be transformed into medical treatment," Marker said.
Patients will also be permitted to leave a written request giving doctors the right to use their own discretion of whether to carry out euthanasia when patients themselves can no longer decide. A committee consisting of at least three people, including a physician, a lawyer and an expert in medical ethics, will review cases to ensure the criteria are met.
Patients as young as 16 can seek euthanasia in consultation with their parents, and children aged 12-15 must have parental consent, the Justice Ministry said.
Recent figures show that Dutch doctors helped 2,216 patients, mostly cancer victims, to die in 1999, but it is estimated that some 60 percent of cases are not reported.