AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- August, 1999 -- The Dutch government published plans Tuesday to legalize euthanasia under strict guidelines, which would allow children as young as 12 to demand and receive so-called "mercy killing."
The plans are expected to gain parliamentary approval next year, which would make the Netherlands the first country in the world to legalize euthanasia.
Under the new law, which formalizes practices already widely accepted in the country and carried out in the Netherlands, euthanasia and assisted suicide would be legal only if carried out under strict guidelines.
Doctors judged not to have adhered to the guidelines would still face prosecution and a maximum 12-year jail term.
The plans should encourage activism by pro-life opponents who have been lulled into a "spiritual slumber," a prominent anti-euthanasia activist said.
"A child of 12 can't make decisions about trivial things," Bert Dorenbos, leader of the largest Dutch pro-life group, Scream for Life, said Tuesday. "Now he can decide about his own life or death. It is totally absurd. The government is creating a judicial monster."
Although 3 percent of all Dutch deaths - 3,600 people - each year are reported as euthanasia, the actual number is believed to be double because many physicians fail to report cases.
Doctors carrying out euthanasia generally administer a lethal injection to their patients, those assisting in suicides prescribe drug overdoses.
The proposed guidelines require:
* the patient make a voluntary and informed request;
* the patient be suffering irremediable and unbearable pain;
* all other medical options be exhausted;
* a second opinion be sought, and;
* the euthanasia be "carefully carried out."
Physicians also must report each case to the coroner and to one of five regional panels, made up of a lawyer, a doctor and an ethics expert. The panel can recommend prosecution if it believes the doctor has not followed the guidelines.
The new law also recognizes so-called "euthanasia declarations," documents in which patients state they want euthanasia even if they are no longer in a position to ask for it themselves - for example, if they are in a coma.
The plans were given a guarded welcome by the Netherlands Association for Voluntary Euthanasia, which includes Health Minister Els Borst among its 100,000 members.
The association "sees it as a step in the right direction that after more than 25 years of discussions in society, there will now be legislation governing death at your own request," the group said in a statement.
But the association criticized the plans for vagueness about euthanasia declarations and argued that the regional panels are ineffective.
There have only been a handful of euthanasia prosecutions in the Netherlands. Most were brought as test cases to establish jurisprudence in sensitive cases such as the mercy killing of severely handicapped newborns and the comatose.
The pro-life Protestant State Reformed Party, which holds two seats in the Dutch parliament, accused the government of "mopping up the last remaining scraps of Christian morals from the law books."