Why Are Dutch Alone on Euthanasia and Gay Rights?

Manila Bulletin, May 22, 2001 | Go to article overview

Why Are Dutch Alone on Euthanasia and Gay Rights?


AMSTERDAM, Netherlands - What is it about the Dutch?

They sell marijuana joints and hashish-laced "space cakes" in specialty shops. Prostitutes stand brazenly in skimpy lingerie under soft neon light on display for window-shopping customers and tourists. And the country lets its doctors kill patients who want to die.

Sex shops and dope-selling "coffee houses" are overtaking wooden shoes and windmills as popular images of Holland.

In the last year, parliament enacted laws legalizing brothels and regulating the sex trade; sanctioning gay marriages and investing those unions with full rights; and approving euthanasia conducted under strict guidelines. Now there is talk of prescribing suicide pills for the elderly.

Some call the Dutch pioneers of progressiveness. Others wonder if they're not degenerates.

The Vatican described the gay marriage law as "a grave attack on the family," and its newspaper denounced the euthanasia bill, wondering how "such a macabre choice can be seen as 'civil' and 'humanitarian.' " Germany's Greens party called the euthanasia decision "regrettable."

Yet, while all these laws attracted worldwide attention, their evolution was so gradual here that the Dutch hardly noticed when they were finally adopted and quietly went into force. All were debated for decades, then carefully crafted into bills reflecting a broad consensus.

Why is a country of 16 million people, one of the smallest and least vocal in Europe, at the forefront of liberal legislation? And why did it happen in a country that embraced the dourest, most regimented stream of Christendom, Calvinism?

The Dutch say they are just as conservative as other Europeans, only more sensible about dealing with alternative lifestyles, employing an art of pragmatism drawn from deep in their history.

Decriminalization gives authorities greater control over activities that happens anyway, they argue. After the Netherlands overturned a widely ignored 1912 ban on brothels last year, these houses became taxpaying establishments required to give standard employe benefits. The law also was designed to weed out illegal immigrants, underage girls and forced prostitution.

Euthanasia traditionally accounts for about 3,500 deaths a year in the Netherlands, a rate the Dutch say is secretly matched in other countries. But the law passed in April firmly regulates the conditions under which doctors may help patients end their lives.

Historian Han van der Horst says the Dutch have long followed the rule of "the sovereignty of one's own domain" - in other words, live and let live.

Far from being a homogenous nation, the Netherlands is a patchwork of minorities and subcultures, says Van der Horst, author of "The Low Sky," a book intended to explain the Dutch to uncomprehending outsiders.

"In such a system, tolerance and respect for private lifestyles is essential, because the alternative is civil war," he said in an interview.

Today, only a few miles (several kilometers) from the wide-open cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam is a broad Bible belt, where shops are closed on Sunday and where a fundamentalist Christian organization claims the bulk of its half million members.

Such coexistence is a product of the historical divide between Roman Catholics and Protestants, a defining feature of the Netherlands' creation as a nation in the 16th century.

In the Calvinist north, Catholic churches were outlawed, but were ignored as long as the exteriors did not look like churches. It was understood no one would peek inside, thus allowing an unwritten freedom of worship. Portuguese Jews fleeing the Inquisition also were welcomed - as long as they contributed to the booming Dutch economy.

This blind-eye policy, what the Dutch call "the expediency principle," is still a hallmark of Dutch jurisprudence. The sale of hashish and marijuana is illegal, but 850 coffee houses sell marijuana joints or 5-gram packets of hash without fear of prosecution if they do not sell liquor, too. …

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