The Netherlands has become the first country in the world to legalise euthanasia, after the Dutch senate formally approved a bill allowing mercy killing.
After two days of debate, the 75 members of the Dutch Senate voted 46 to 28 in favour of the law, with one member not present. The vote recognises a tolerated practice but defied thousands of protesters who turned out in force earlier in the day to register their opposition. More than 3000 demonstrators packed central Hague square near the upper house, or Senate, singing hymns and praying. Most had headed home before the vote was taken as it was seen as a formality after the lower house overwhelmingly approved the bill in November.
At least 5000 people, many of them school children given the day off school, marched silently from the railway station to Plien Square. Some protesters had their faces painted with crosses, while one balaclava clad man held a placard saying: "Euthanasia is still murder." Another person branding a crucifix chased a car carrying Health Minister Els Borst shouting: "God will have the last word."
One protestor, 19-yearold Henrico van der Hoek told The Independent, "We donâ€™t have the right to decide about matters of life and death, but God does". Van der Hoek, who attends a Dutch Reformed Church, said his Christian faith did not allow him to support mercy killings. Christians are a small minority in The Netherlands, a country which was once a stronghold in Christian politics.
The vote recognised a practice that has already been tolerated in the Netherlands for more than 20 years. Recent polls have indicated that 86 percent of the Dutch population supports the new laws.
The legislation goes into force in two weeks after Queen Beatrix signs the law and publishes the details in official legal media.
Euthanasia will only be allowed under specified conditions. Children aged between 12 and 16 must have consent of their parents. Consenting patients must have a continuos, incurable illness that leads to "unbearable suffering". The patient must be of sound mind and their request to die must be voluntary. The termination of life must be carried out in a medially appropriate manner after consultation with an independent specialist. Although doctors must consider all written requests seriously, the new law does not say that the has to honour it.
"Doctors will follow rules - an independent doctor, independent to the patient, a specially trained doctor to give advice â€¦itâ€™s not much change as it is mostly a qualification of whatâ€™s happening now," says Rob Jonquire, managing director of the Dutch Voluntary Euthanasia Society (DVES)
The move has sparked fears of "death tourism" - with the Netherlands being the only country in the world to legalise mercy killing, people could travel to the Netherlands to end their lives. But death on demand may be prevented as doctors insist on a close relationship with their patients.
"Most doctors hope, some of them pray, that the will not have another euthanasia case," Jonquire told the Reuters news agency today. "Iâ€™m a doctor myself and I know all doctors have an in-built resistance to giving (euthanasia) help."
Kars Veling, Senate member for the Christian Union party, said it was important trust was preserved between doctors and patients, with patients not feeling under pressure to choose death. He said,
"I am ashamed of this as a Dutchman. I think it is a terrible mistake."
An estimated 4000 people died as a result of assisted suicide or euthanasia in 1999 according to figures about to be released by the DVES. However the society does not expect an increase in the number of euthanasia cases, despite patients knowing it is legal and therefore easier to approach doctors to conduct mercy killings.
Meanwhile, Australian campaigner Philip Nitschke plans to perform euthanasia on a Dutch registered ship just outside Australian waters. The Melbourne doctor currently runs controversial workshops in Australia and New Zealand advising people how terminally ill patients can kill themselves, despite euthanasia being illegal in both countries..
Dr Nitschke rose to prominence when he performed euthanasia on four terminally ill patients after Australiaâ€™s Northern Territory briefly legalised the practice in 1996. Dr Nitschke told ABC radio he would have to seek legal advice in light of the new Dutch law.
"We need to find out what the legal position of a ship in international waters is, and weâ€™ll still go ahead with that" he said.
"We want to know what the legal position is. There is no clear answer on this, and it will take a while to get that answer, and obviously no planned procedure until we know" he said.
"But we are going to find out," he said.
Legislation around the world
Belgium: A law legalising euthanasia is expected to be approved later this year.
Sweden: "Suicide assistance" is a non-punishable offence. A doctor can, in extreme cases, unplug life support machines.
Denmark: Terminally ill patients can decide if and when they should abandon vital treatment
France: euthanasia is illegal but the law does not regard a doctorâ€™s considered decision to refuse life-saving medication as murder
Britain: Euthanasia is a criminal offence carrying a mandatory life prison sentence. The British Medical Association has always opposed euthanasia but a minority of doctors would like the law changed
Germany: Euthanasia isa highly sensitive issue. The administration of a deadly drug is regarded as murder.
America. Euthanasia is outlawed, although Oregon allows medically allsisted suicide where a doctor gives a patient illegal drugs but does not administer them.
Australia. Northern Territory passed a law allowing euthanasia in 1996, but it was repealed by the federal government a year later
China. The government authorises hospital to practise euthanasia in theterminal phase if an illness if patients request it.
New Zealand: It is illegal to "assist suicide" in New Zealand. A private members bill to legalise euthanasia was drafted by NZ First MP Peter Brown last year but it is yet to go to parliament for a first hearing. A similar bill two years ago failed.