Latest News

In Netherlands, debate begins on euthanizing critically ill children

BERLIN—Attempting to prod the government of the Netherlands to weigh in on an ongoing battle over expanding euthanasia, a group of senior Dutch doctors has reported itself to prosecutors for having "killed" 20 newborns.

Dutch justice ministry officials had no comment last week on whether there would be any legal action in the cases. The doctors hope their move will prompt parliament to recognize officially that doctors have been euthanizing critically ill children beyond what Dutch law allows.

The law says people can elect suicide over continued treatment for terminal conditions, but it does not apply to children under 12. Debate over the sanctioned killing of children has been raging in the Netherlands for months and has drawn the attention of the Vatican and anti-euthanasia groups from around the world.

The nation's Supreme Court first approved of euthanasia, under certain circumstances, in 1984. Ten years later, the parliament outlined rules to follow to avoid prosecution. In 2002, members of parliament voted it into law.

But the law has dealt with patients who have requested death. This discussion—which is in a very preliminary stage and expected soon on the parliament's calendar—is about those who cannot request death, or voice a choice for life.

The debate centers around the so-called Groningen Protocol, which officials at the Groningen University Hospital wrote with the help of prosecutors.

The Dutch Journal of Medicine published a study last month claiming at least 22 babies had been euthanized in the Netherlands since 1997. Earlier, doctors at leading hospitals in the country called for a national committee to come up with a law on the matter.

"It's time to be honest about the unbearable suffering endured by newborns with no hope of a future," Dr. Eduard Verhagen, the head of pediatrics for the hospital, said in a statement. "All over the world, doctors end lives discretely, out of compassion, without any kind of regulation."

"These children face a life of agonizing pain," he said.

In December, the hospital, which had largely refused to discuss the details of the protocol, made it public in hopes of gaining support for the effort to regulate the practice.

According to the hospital's Web site, a terminally ill child's life could be ended under specific conditions:

_Suffering must be so severe that there is no hope for a future;

_There is no possibility of a cure or alleviation with medication or surgery;

_Parents must give their consent;

_ A second opinion is required and must come from doctors not involved in the child's treatment;

_The "deliberate ending of life must be meticulously carried out with the emphasis on aftercare."

A hospital statement said that the protocol would apply to perhaps 15 to 20 cases a year in the Netherlands. At Groningen hospital, about four cases have been taken to prosecutors within the past year and half, and all were judged to have been justified and professional.

The Vatican has long opposed euthanasia. In January, Pope John Paul II criticized the Dutch for looking into legalizing the euthanasia of infants.

"I urge the authorities and medical personnel and all those who exercise an educative role to weigh the gravity of these questions," he said.

In the Netherlands, Bert Dorenbos, chairman of Cry for Life, which opposes euthanasia, genetic engineering and abortion, fears that the parents of handicapped children will soon be subjected to public ridicule and anger for not choosing euthanasia.

"Listen, nobody likes for children to suffer," he said. "But the fact that this movement now even exists suggests we are moving in the wrong direction, away from treatment."

The report on the protocol can be found in English on the hospital's Web site:


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Need to map