WITH TODAY'S expected vote on euthanasia in its upper house of parliament, the Netherlands is leading the world into uncharted territory - the first sovereign country to take the momentous step of legitimising the practice, albeit only under the most strictly defined circumstances. It is an example that Britain, sooner rather than later, would do well to follow.
Euthanasia is an issue that raises the most profound medical, ethical and moral issues. To the Church, it is anathema on exactly the same grounds as abortion, that both violate the sanctity of life, which is God's alone to give and to take away. But, just like abortion, the plain fact is that in every country where medicine is practised, our own included, euthanasia has existed for centuries.
Until quite recently, there seemed a powerful defence for the British way of euthanasia. As with the British way in many other things, it boiled down to an unscripted pragmatism, and the occasional turning of a blind eye to the law, in the interests of the common sense that we like to see as a defining national characteristic.
Such was the unspoken philosophy behind so-called "double- effect" treatment, whereby doctors prescribe ever-larger doses of painkillers to relieve the suffering of the terminally ill, fully aware that the palliative was likely to bring about death. Technically, assisted death is a form of murder. But the argument has rarely been tested in the courts, on the sound principle that tricky cases make awkward precedents. But in this age of strident pressure groups, proliferating negligence and malpractice suits, and the unending clamour about individual rights, pragmatism alone is no longer enough.
At first glance, there could hardly be a less opportune moment to import this latest example of Dutch social-pioneering. British medicine is still in shock at the chilling case of Harold Shipman, whose treatment of the old and infirm has been to euthanasia as Nazi medicine was to the cause of eugenics. …