A Comparative Analysis of the Law regarding Euthanasia in Belgium and the Netherlands

Ethical Perspectives 9 (2):73-85 (2002)
Abstract
In Belgium the legal conditions to practise euthanasia are governed by the act on euthanasia of 28 May, 2002 that entered into force on 23 September, 2002. There is no relevant jurisprudence and no guidance is offered by self-regulation made up by the medical profession itself before or after the enactment of the act. Thoughtful comments on the act are, understandably, lacking up to now while the discussions in parliament have been often unclear, contradictory and sometimes even misleading. In other words, the law on euthanasia in Belgium almost coincides with the act on euthanasia.In this respect the situation in the Netherlands is totally different. The law on euthanasia is first of all governed by the "Termination of life on request and assisted suicide act" of 10 April, 2001 that entered into force on 1 April, 2002. This act is generally considered as the codification of the norms and procedures that have governed the practice of euthanasia in the Netherlands for almost three decades. These norms and procedures have largely emerged from within the medical profession itself and were later adopted by the courts in the context of criminal prosecutions. There also exists a very important legal doctrine that offers guidance in understanding this act. In other words, studying the law on euthanasia in the Netherlands is more than merely studying the act on euthanasia. The act is only the ‘tip of the iceberg’.While the Dutch act aims to codify existing practices, the Belgian act mainly aims to modify the behaviour of physicians when ending the life of their patients. It is hoped that a law that pretends to offer legal security to physicians and patients will stimulate patients to express a voluntary and explicit request and that physicians will abandon their practice of ending the lives of patients without their request. Research indeed had pointed out that Belgian physicians frequently 'forget' to obtain the patient’s request before ending his life.Is should be made clear from the outset that a comparison of the Belgian and the Dutch law regulating the practice of euthanasia is a hazardous undertaking. Just comparing both acts — at first sight the Belgian act, although much more detailed, could be considered a 'clone' of the Dutch act — will lead to misleading and even incorrect results. Not only the acts, but also medical practice and legal practice have to be considered when we try to compare the law on euthanasia in both countries. In this article I will make an attempt to do this. Lack of space requires omitting many details from the comparison
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