London (CNSNews.com) - The Netherlands became the first country in the world to officially sanction euthanasia after a controversial new law came into force Monday.
The law allows terminally ill patients to request euthanasia and sets down guidelines for doctors who are involved in the practice.
The legislation, which passed the upper house of the Dutch parliament last April, will have little practical effect besides providing immunity for doctors who follow the new guidelines. Euthanasia has been tolerated by Dutch authorities for more than 20 years, but until Monday doctors still faced arrest and prosecution if relatives of the dying patient did not agree with the killing.
The new law stipulates that the patient must have an incurable condition and it requires two doctors to approve an assisted suicide. The suffering of the patient must be "unbearable," the person must volunteer to die and must repeat his or her request to die.
The law also sets up regional committees that will review all euthanasia cases. Doctors who kill patients without following the guidelines could be imprisoned for up to 12 years or fined.
An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 cases of euthanasia are already recorded in the Netherlands each year. Although opinion polls show wide public support for the new legislation, it has drawn opposition from Christian and right-to-life groups, as well as the United Nations.
The U.N.'s Human Rights Committee has expressed concern about euthanasia becoming routine and insensitive in the Netherlands, and has questioned a provision that allows children as young as 12 request the procedure with parental approval. The committee has also said it is not convinced that the Dutch system can prevent pressure being put on a patient to volunteer to die.
The U.N. also objected to the fact that the regional review committees will only be able to examine individual cases after the patient is dead.
Even though the law only came into effect Monday, it has already spared one Dutch doctor a prison sentence. Philip Sutorius assisted the suicide of an 86-year-old former member of parliament in 1998. He was convicted of illegally assisting a death but the judge took the new law into account and refused to sentence him last December, ruling that the violation was "so minor that any form of punishment would be inappropriate."
Several European countries may follow the Dutch lead. Belgian legislators have already written a law to regulate euthanasia that will come into force pending approval from the country's chamber of deputies.
French health minister Bernard Kouchner has expressed a desire to use the Netherlands law to press for change in his home country.
Some Dutch doctors are arguing for even further leniency in assisted suicide, including allowing physicians to prescribe "suicide pills" for elderly patients who are not necessarily sick, but simply express a willingness to die.
E-mail a news tip to Mike Wendling.
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