By a 46-28 vote Tuesday evening, the Dutch Senate enacted a law that made the Netherlands the first country to allow euthanasia and assisted suicides for patients suffering unbearably with no hope of relief.
"I hope that other governments will find the courage to follow suit," said Health Minister Els Borst.
Dutch doctors conduct an estimated 5,000 mercy killings a year, but only a handful have been prosecuted in recent years for misconduct. The Health Ministry said doctors comply with only one-third of the requests for euthanasia.
The bill passed through the lower house last November by an even larger margin than in the Senate. It becomes law after it is signed by Queen Beatrix and published in legal documents, probably within a few weeks.
Like the Netherlands, several other countries close their eyes to mercy killings, and some have flirted with legislation.
Bernhard Grewin, president of the Swedish Medical Society, criticized the Dutch law. He said it is counter to the policy of the World Medical Association, which had discussed and rejected mercy killing.
"The Dutch decision is very unfortunate," Grewin said in Stockholm. "The Dutch medical body is shouldering a difficult and heavy responsibility."
The Vatican denounced the legislation as an "aberrant" and "macabre" decision.
"We find it hard to believe that such a macabre choice can be seen as a 'civil' and 'humanitarian' one," the Vatican daily newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, wrote in an editorial. "Killing a patient is a criminal act" and doctors conducting mercy killings are similar to "executioners."
In Germany, the Greens party, the junior partne in the coalition, said the decision was regrettable. "No third person should be given the possibility to legally kill another human being," said the party's health affairs spokeswoman, Katrin Goering-Eckardt.
Modest encouragement came from France and Austria.
French Health Minister Bernard Kouchner said he was open to the "necessary debate" on mercy killings. "It's not only a question of euthanasia but of assistance at the end of life. It must continue," Kouchner told reporters.
In Vienna, Andreas Khol, the parliamentary chief of the governing People's Party, spoke in favor of a "compassionate and caring support" for people approaching death, who should be given a chance for a dignified end.
The Voluntary Euthanasia Society in Britain called the Dutch legislation "part of the global trend of the general public taking control of how they live and die." It cited Belgium and Spain as other countries considering legislation.
Australia was likely to reopen its debate on euthanasia, after a leading advocate said he would float a ship flying the Dutch flag off the coast where mercy killings could be conducted. Supporters of the Dutch bill denounced the plan by Philip Nitschke, which they said would not conform to the rigid Dutch rules.
Bob Brown, of the Green Party, said he would introduce legislation following federal elections expected later this year to resurrect the Northern Territory's euthanasia law, enacted in 1996 but revoked by the federal parliament less than a year later.
"I believe a new vote on that in the next parliament would see a reversal," Brown told reporters.
An editorial in the Amsterdam daily Trouw said public opinion was still too divided to speak of a consensus. Being the first in the world "is nothing to be proud of," it said Wednesday.
But the national daily Volkskrant said the law sanctioned common practice and eliminated a legal gray area.
By Arthur Max
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