The Dutch Government is introducing “new rules” regulating how newborns should die. According to these rules Dutch doctors who kill terminally ill newborns are no longer obliged to inform the authorities. The Dutch minister of Justice, Piet-Hein Donner, and his colleague of the ministry of Health, Clémence Ross, both Christian-Democrats, have agreed to apply the so-called “Groningen Protocol” throughout the country.
Last November, the Groningen Academic Hospital decided to administer lethal doses of sedatives to terminally ill newborns. Euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands when patients have explicitly asked to be killed. This excludes people “with no free will,” such as children, the severely mentally retarded and people left in an irreversible coma after an accident. In the Netherlands – the first nation to legalise euthanasia – as well as in neighbouring Belgium, which adopted a law similar to that of the Dutch, advocates of “mercy killings” are pushing for a “right to euthanasia” for people who cannot explicitly ask for it.
The guideline accepted by the hospital in Groningen last year states that euthanasia is allowed 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 is best.
Under Dutch law doctors performing euthanasia have to report every case to the ministry of Justice. In all, 22 cases of euthanasia on newborns have been reported to the Justice Ministry since the euthanasia bill was voted in 1997. However, there never were any prosecutions as the judicial authorities decided to dismiss all 22 cases despite the fact that they are illegal. It is, nevertheless, assumed that many doctors do not report cases of euthanasia on newborns for fear of prosecution.
The Dutch newspaper NRC-Handelsblad wrote earlier this week that ministers Donner and Ross have decided that euthanasia of newborns as well as abortions of foetuses older than 24 weeks (which under Dutch law are illegal) no longer need to be reported to the Justice Ministry. Instead doctors will be required to report to a commission consisting of a paediatrician, a gynecologist and a lawyer. It is assumed that doctors will be more inclined to report euthanasia of “babies that are so ill that their suffering is unbearable and hopeless and that do not die of their own accord” to a commission of colleagues than to the judiciary.
The same rule will apply to abortions beyond the legal limit of 24 weeks. At present, Dutch women travel to Belgium to have late-term abortions because the Belgian law is more liberal. Belgium allows unconditional abortions up to 12 weeks after conception, and unlimited abortion if the child is considered to have an incurable illness or handicap.
Later this autumn the Belgian Senate will debate a bill to allow euthanasia of people who are incapable of requesting or giving permission to be killed. The Netherlands and Belgium are the two most ethically liberal countries in the Western world, with laws allowing abortion and euthanasia as well as gay marriage. Belgium also intends to introduce adoption rights for homosexual couples.