Legalization of Euthanasia in the Netherlands

By Jochemsen, Henk | Issues in Law & Medicine, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Legalization of Euthanasia in the Netherlands


Jochemsen, Henk, Issues in Law & Medicine


On November 28, 2000, the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament accepted the proposal for a law regarding legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide. The proposal will now go to the First Chamber, which will probably discuss it in early 2001. It will only become effective if it is also accepted by the First Chamber.

This legalization is a significant step on the path towards acceptance of euthanasia as part of medical practice. Since 1994, a legal regulation has existed for dealing with cases of euthanasia and assisted suicide in which the courts accepted these actions as long as certain conditions were met.

The proposal accepted by the Second Chamber essentially contains the following provisions:

1. In order to be deemed legal, acts of euthanasia must be performed according to "careful medical practice." Requests for euthanasia must be voluntary, well considered and persistent, and be made by patients who are experiencing unbearable suffering without hope of improvement. More than one physician must be involved in the decision, and both patient and physician must agree that euthanasia is the only reasonable option.

2. All cases of euthanasia must be reported to and evaluated by regional committees composed of a lawyer, physician and an ethicist/philosopher. Each position also has a deputy member.

3. Acts of euthanasia and assisted suicide will not be punishable if performed by a physician who has complied with the conditions in (1) and has reported the action to the coroner.

4. The coroner attending to a euthanasia case must send his or her report to the Public Prosecutor, as well as to the regional euthanasia committee. The report must demonstrate that all the requirements for legal euthanasia have been observed. In the event of severe infraction, the Prosecutor will not give consent for burial or cremation until further investigations have been conducted.

5. Also minors between the ages of 12 and 16 can request and receive euthanasia or assisted suicide provided their parents consent to it.

The proposal also establishes a legal basis for advance euthanasia declarations via a type of "living will" in which a patient would request euthanasia in the event he or she became mentally incompetent. Though such a statement does not imply that a physician has a duty to perform euthanasia at any moment, it provides the legal opening to intentionally end the life of an incompetent patient who had signed such a document.

A number of objections can be raised against this ominous proposal for legalizing euthanasia: First, the proposal does not adequately safeguard the public. The legalization of intentional killing by physicians constitutes, in itself, a serious violation of the legal protection of the life of all citizens.

Moreover, whenever the committee rules favorably on a case by deeming an act of killing legal, the Public Prosecutor's ability to monitor physician conduct will be compromised, because the Prosecutor will not even see the report of the physician involved in the case. Furthermore, it is likely that cases in which the legal requirements have not been fulfilled will go unreported, since that precedent has already been set. Data on reported cases are provided by the physician who performed the euthanasia; therefore, determinations of whether the legal requirements have been met may very often be biased as well. Adequate control will be impossible.

Second, such legalization will lead to a broader acceptance and increased practice of euthanasia, which will dramatically change the nature of the patient-physician relationship and terminal/palliative care.

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