In a historic vote today, the upper house of the Dutch parliament made the Netherlands the first country to legalize euthanasia, a practice that has enjoyed growing popular support.
Significantly, the Dutch law makes no specific mention of whether the patient needs to be terminally ill to have euthanasia approved.
Deputies of the 75-member strong Dutch Senate represented the last hurdle for the controversial government-sponsored bill that received overwhelming lower house consent last November.
The vote is the culmination of almost 30 years of growing approval of mercy killings in the Netherlands. The new law removes the possibility of doctors being prosecuted for euthanasia, which previously carried a maximum 12-year sentence.
Almost 90 Percent Approval
Under the new law — practically identical to guidelines issued in 1993 — patients will be required to make persistent, well-considered and voluntary requests to their doctor for euthanasia.
Only when there is a long-standing doctor-patient relationship will requests for euthanasia be considered.
The patient's suffering must be assessed as unbearable and without prospect of improvement and every feasible treatment exhausted before the doctor passes his recommendations to an independent physician for a second written opinion. The process is finally scrutinized by an independent commission.
The Dutch Senate passed the law in the face of thousands of vocal pro-life protesters gathered outside the parliament buildings in The Hague. Legislators had their confidence boosted by recent polls suggesting 86 percent of the Dutch population was in favor of legalizing the practice.
A Slippery Slope Toward More Death?
Representatives for the Dutch pro-life group Cry for Life earlier today handed legislators a 40,000-signature petition in a last gasp effort to prevent the bill from being approved.
"Doctors are supposed to be a healing profession, not killers," Alex van Vuuren of Cry for Life told ABCNEWS.com. Van Vuuren believes the law will put extra pressure on weak people. "Legalizing euthanasia will be a break with a thousand years of western civilization," he continued.
Others saw the new law in a very different light. "It has been a good practice for many years," Martine Cornelisse of the Dutch Voluntary Euthanasia Society (DVES), said. "What is essential to understand about this law is that it is the patient's initiative and that the patient is well-informed. There is more control in this than in any other medical procedure," she said countering claims the law would provide a free-for-all on mercy killings.
The latest DVES figures show an estimated 4,000 deaths from euthanasia in the Netherlands in 1999 compared to 3,600 in 1995.
Belgium recently passed a draft bill on euthanasia which leans heavily on the Dutch model. France is also considering similar legislation.
The only similar law presently in force is Oregon's "Death with Dignity Act." The law passed in 1997 allows for physician-assisted suicide within a more closely defined set of circumstances than the new Dutch legislation.