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International News
Netherlands First Nation to Approve Physician-Assisted Suicide
Psychiatric News
Volume 36 Number 3 page 12-30

A law expected to be enacted early this year in the Netherlands will distinguish that country as the first to legalize physician-assisted suicide and mercy killing. The law follows the votes by both houses of the Dutch Parliament late last year to authorize the new legislation addressing practices that have been in widespread use for several years but have remained illegal.

The action was immediately criticized by various medical, legal, and religious groups around the globe, including the AMA and the Vatican. However, the measure was approved after years of debate among the Dutch public, with opinion polls showing widespread support for the option of physician-assisted suicide both in public and in the medical profession.

The new law will clarify and define what has been a common practice in the Netherlands for many years. According to the Netherlands Association for Voluntary Euthanasia, which claims hundreds of thousands of members, Dutch doctors have helped thousands of terminally ill patients die over the last decade, usually administering or supplying large doses of barbiturates.

The legislation, introduced in the Parliament by the ministers of justice and health, applies only to the actions of physicians and incorporates guidelines previously outlined by the Royal Dutch Medical Association.

Among the requirements are stipulations that a patient’s request to die must be made while the person is still lucid and competent and must be voluntary and persistent. The physician must certify that the patient is "facing interminable and unbearable suffering." No physician may suggest to the patient that assisted death is an option. In all cases, a second opinion must be sought, and the cause of death must be reported as euthanasia or assisted suicide.

Under the new legislation, physicians will remain accountable for their actions to a panel of their peers but not to a prosecutor. Although the bill decriminalizes euthanasia, it does not establish a right to euthanasia. Physicians are expressly granted the right to refuse a patient’s request. The new law will allow anyone over the age of 16 to request euthanasia; those between the ages of 12 and 16 must have parental consent.

The debate over legalization of physician-assisted suicide continues to rage in Belgium, France, and Switzerland, all of which are reported to be considering legislation on the issue. In 1996 Australia’s Northern Territory approved a law allowing medically assisted suicide, but revoked it shortly thereafter due to intense public controversy. In the U.S. only Oregon has legislation allowing physician-assisted suicide. ▪

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