Once again, the Netherlands has braved the storm. Last week, the country’s Senate, the upper house of Parliament, passed a bill legalizing euthanasia. When Queen Beatrix signs the law, which was passed by the lower house last November, the Netherlands will be the first country to permit mercy killing. The move unleashed a wave of criticism and opened worldwide debate on the issue.

As befits a question this controversial, the Dutch debated the matter slowly and methodically. The discussion unfolded over three decades before the bill was introduced in Parliament last year. All voices were heard. By the time the legislation was tabled, 90 percent of the Dutch public approved of a humane alternative to painful death.

This is not the first time that the Netherlands has forthrightly tackled social issues in Parliament. Earlier, the country legalized prostitution and marriage between people of the same sex. In each of these cases, the government has taken a practical view: It has decriminalized conduct that was widespread, eliminating the fear of prosecution or the possibility of persecution resulting from discriminatory law enforcement.

In other words, pragmatism has guided Dutch policy. It has been estimated that doctors in the Netherlands were already performing some 5,000 mercy killings a year while authorities turned a blind eye. Nonetheless, euthanasia was illegal. Doctors ran the risk of legal proceedings and a prison sentence of up to 12 years. No doctor has been indicted in recent years, however.

To prevent abuse, the Netherlands has set up strict guidelines for when euthanasia is permitted. There are three rules. A patient’s condition must be incurable, the patient must be of sound mind and fully agree to his or her death, and the patient must be suffering unbearable pain. Children between the ages of 12 and 16 must have parental consent. A patient can declare in writing that the physician can terminate life in advance of becoming unconscious or otherwise incapable of making that decision. All decisions must be approved by regional health committees. Only Dutch citizens can make use of the service.

The guidelines are designed to deter abuse of the law. That does not mean they have quieted all criticism. Some citizens oppose euthanasia in any and all circumstances. They may be a minority, but they are a vocal one. Moreover, the guidelines themselves are open to interpretation. What, for example, is “unbearable pain”? Uncertainty could open the door to prosecution, which would nullify the intent of the legislation.

Predictably, the Dutch decision received mixed reviews. The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano summed up one perspective by branding the bill “criminal.” For those who believe that life is sacred and it is not humanity’s place to intervene, any decision to hasten death is wrong. For other critics, any form of state-sanctioned killing is dangerous: It opens the door to potential abuse. It is far safer, they claim, to maintain an unambiguous line that bars any government role in such decisions.

Others assert that the guidelines themselves are dangerous. Life-and-death decisions are too important to be left to bureaucrats. Fitting a patient into the law’s framework is itself dehumanizing.

Yet many others, in the Netherlands and elsewhere, argue that human beings deserve dignity in death as in life. There are times when people can choose death. If we are to respect that choice and honor their freedom to make such decisions, then laws such as that passed by the Netherlands are essential. The threat of criminal prosecution, in these circumstances, can only deprive an individual of that freedom.

The debate will never end. Euthanasia, like the abortion controversy, involves matters that go beyond rational thinking. Some people oppose both out on grounds of faith, for which there is no argument. As a society we must respect those beliefs; the question is whether those who hold them can then impose them on nonbelievers.

Each society should be able to reach its own consensus. It may be a messy process — it is likely to be — but such issues deserve no less. The very act of debate is likely to be instrumental in shaping the eventual decision. Euthanasia supporters around the world encouraged the Dutch Parliament to act because they felt that would spur their own countries to address the subject. A similar law has already been presented in the Belgian Parliament and could be approved later this year. More debates will follow. As responsible citizens, we must all be ready to contribute.

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