Netherlands, First Country to Legalize Euthanasia

By Wise, Jacqui | Bulletin of the World Health Organization, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Netherlands, First Country to Legalize Euthanasia


Wise, Jacqui, Bulletin of the World Health Organization


Last month, the Netherlands became the first country to decriminalize voluntary euthanasia. Under new legislation a doctor will not be prosecuted for terminating a person's life providing he or she is convinced that the patient's request is voluntary and well considered and that the patient is facing "unremitting and unbearable" suffering.

The doctor must have advised the patient of his or her clinical condition and have reached a firm conclusion with the patient that there is "no reasonable alternative". In addition, at least one other independent physician must have examined the patient and reached the same conclusion.

The legislation reached its final hurdle on 10 April when the Dutch senate voted by 46 votes to 28 to approve the bill. The vote was seen as a formality, after the lower house voted last autumn by 2:1 in favour of decriminalization.

There will be little change in practice, as Dutch doctors have offered euthanasia to terminally ill patients for at least two decades. In 1994, a law was introduced which obliged doctors to report any cases of euthanasia to the authorities, who would then decide not to prosecute if the doctor had followed certain guidelines. Euthanasia still remained a crime, however, carrying a maximum 12-year prison sentence.

The Royal Dutch Medical Association welcomed the move, saying it would resolve the "paradoxical legal situation" and ensure that doctors acting in good faith and with due care would not face criminal proceedings.

Although surveys show that the change in law is supported by 90% of the Dutch population, there were still angry protests outside the parliament building. In the weeks preceding the debate, the senate received over 60 000 letters urging legislators to vote against the bill. The mostly Christian protesters view the measure as an assault on the sanctity of life.

About 3000 cases of voluntary euthanasia are carried out each year in the Netherlands. …

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