2005 (ARCHIVED) - AMSTERDAM, Netherlands
(AP) - Raising the stakes in an excruciating
ethical debate, a hospital in the
Netherlands - the first nation to permit
euthanasia - recently proposed guidelines
for mercy killings of terminally ill
newborns, and then made a startling
revelation: It has already begun carrying
out such procedures in a handful of cases
and reporting them to the government.
The announcement last month by the
Groningen Academic Hospital came amid a
growing discussion in Holland on whether to
legalize euthanasia on people incapable of
deciding for themselves whether they want to
end their lives - a prospect viewed with
horror by euthanasia opponents and as a
natural evolution by advocates.
In August, the main Dutch doctors'
association KNMG urged the Health Ministry
to create an independent board to review
euthanasia cases for terminally ill people
"with no free will," including
children, the severely mentally retarded,
and people left in an irreversible coma
after an accident.
The Health Ministry is preparing its
response to the request, a spokesman said,
and it may come as soon as December.
Three years ago, the Dutch parliament made
it legal for doctors to inject a sedative
and a lethal dose of muscle relaxant at the
request of adult patients suffering great
pain with no hope of relief.
The Groningen Protocol, as the hospital's
guidelines have come to be known, would
create a legal framework for permitting
doctors to actively end the life of newborns
deemed to be in similar pain from incurable
disease or extreme deformities.
The guideline says euthanasia is acceptable
when the child's medical team and
independent doctors agree the pain cannot be
eased and there is no prospect for
improvement, and when parents think it's
Examples include extremely premature births,
where children suffer brain damage from
bleeding and convulsions; and diseases where
a child could only survive on life support
for the rest of its life such as spina
bifida and epidermosis bullosa, a blistering
The hospital said it carried out four such
mercy killings in 2003, and reported all
cases to government prosecutors - but there
have been no legal proceedings taken against
Catholic organizations and the Vatican have
reacted with outrage to Groningen's
announcement, and U.S. euthanasia opponents
contend that the proposal shows the Dutch
have lost their moral compass.
"The slippery slope in the Netherlands
has descended already into a vertical
cliff," said Wesley J. Smith, a
prominent California-based critic, in an
e-mail to The Associated Press.
Child euthanasia remains illegal everywhere.
Experts say doctors outside of Holland do
not report cases for fear of prosecution.
"As things are, people are doing this
secretly and that's wrong," said Eduard
Verhagen, head of Groningen's children's'
clinic. "In the Netherlands we want to
expose everything, to let everything be
subjected to vetting."
According to the Justice Ministry, four
cases of child euthanasia were reported to
prosecutors in 2003. Two were reported in
2002, seven in 2001 and five in 2000. All
the cases in 2003 were reported by
Groningen, but some of the cases in other
years were from other hospitals.
Groningen estimated the protocol would be
applicable in about 10 cases per year in the
Netherlands, a country with 16 million
Since the introduction of the Dutch law,
Belgium has also legalized euthanasia, while
in France, legislation to allow
doctor-assisted suicide is currently under
debate. In the United States, the state of
Oregon is alone in allowing
physician-assisted suicide, but this is
under constant legal challenge.
However, experts acknowledge that doctors
euthanize routinely in the United States but
that such practice is hidden.
"Measures that might marginally extend
a child's life by minutes or hours or days
or weeks are stopped. This happens
routinely, namely, every day," said
Lance Stell, professor of medical ethics at
Davidson College and staff ethicist at
Carolinas Medical Center in the United
States. "Everybody knows that it
happens, but there's a lot of hypocrisy.
Instead, people talk about things they're
not going to do."
More than half of all deaths occur under
medical supervision, so it's really about
management and method of death, Stell said.