Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Netherlands Hospital Euthanizes Babies

Netherlands Hospital Euthanizes Babies
Tue Nov 30, 6:42 PM ET Europe - AP
By TOBY STERLING, Associated Press Writer

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands - 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, which include administering a
lethal dose of sedatives.

The announcement 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, which could come as soon as
December, a spokesman said.

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 best.

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 severe
cases of spina bifida and epidermosis bullosa, a rare blistering illness.

The hospital revealed last month it carried out four such mercy killings
in 2003, and reported all cases to government prosecutors. There have been
no legal proceedings against the hospital or the doctors.

Roman Catholic organizations and the Vatican (news - web sites) have
reacted with outrage to the announcement, and U.S. euthanasia opponents
contend 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
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 of 16 million people.

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 and elsewhere, but that the 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 in
Davidson, N.C., and staff ethicist at Carolinas Medical Center in
Charlotte, N.C. "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.