Euthanasia became legal on April 1, 2002 in the Netherlands, making it the first country to permit mercy killing for terminally ill people who are desperate to die.
Parliament set off a worldwide controversy a year earlier when it voted to legalize a practice the Dutch have tolerated for two decades. Opponents drew scary parallels with the killing of disabled and mentally ill people in Nazi Germany, but Dutch doctors must obey strict rules or face prosecution.
Among the conditions, patients must face a future of unbearable, interminable suffering and must make a voluntary, well-considered request to die. Doctor and patient must be convinced that there is no other solution, another physician must be consulted, and life must be ended in a medically appropriate way.
Some doctors say the fact that euthanasia is allowed is often a sufficient comfort in itself. "For many terminally ill people, the fact that they can choose to die is an immense consolation," said Coot Kuipers, a general practitioner in Uden, in the south.
Independent experts associated with the United Nations Human Rights Committee criticized the Dutch, saying it could lead to routine and insensitive mercy killing. The experts said they were not convinced that the system would detect and prevent cases where pressure could be exerted on a patient to evade the legal criteria. It also expressed concern that children from 12 to 16 years old are eligible for euthanasia with parental backing and that inquiries would be conducted only after patients died.
Fears of an influx of "euthanasia tourists" were fanned in 2001 when magistrates in Turin began questioning an Italian man suspected of helping terminally ill people travel to the Netherlands to die.
But the Dutch say the legal clause insisting that doctor and patient must have a close relationship precludes such visits. The Dutch Voluntary Euthanasia Society says it fields many inquiries from foreigners but always says no. "People from abroad have always thought it was easy to do it in the Netherlands, but in fact it's not," said the society's spokeswoman, Walburg de Jong.
The society's figures show 2,123 reported cases of euthanasia in 2000 in the Netherlands, though some cases are not reported to coroners.
A Dutch doctor was convicted in late 2001 because in 1998 he assisted in the death of a former senator who said he was "tired of life." The doctor was not given a prison sentence because the court ruled that he acted out of compassion. Though the new law was not yet in force, the court considered the legislation in reaching its judgment, in what was seen as a test of the limits of euthanasia. (info from The New York Times)