THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) - Even before the vote on mercy killings was announced, a huge crowd of protesters dejectedly melted away from the square outside parliament, taking with them placards saying ``Euthanasia is still murder.''
By a 46-28 vote Tuesday evening, the Dutch Senate enacted a law that made the Netherlands the first country to legalize mercy killings and assisted suicides for patients suffering unbearably with no hope of relief.
It was the final legislative act in a 30-year public discussion over euthanasia, and brings into the open what has been discreetly practiced and tolerated for years.
The bill passed through the lower house by an even larger margin last November. It becomes law after it is signed by Queen Beatrix and published in legal documents, probably within a few weeks.
Before the bill was adopted, doctors conducted an estimated 5,000 mercy killings a year in the Netherlands, but only a handful have been prosecuted in recent years for misconduct. Surveys show that doctors refuse far more requests to assist suicides than they accept.
As the upper house debated the bill, about 10,000 anti-euthanasia activists gathered outside the legislature in a final show of dissent.
``The tide will turn back someday,'' said 69-year-old Piet Huurman of the Cry for Life protest group. ``They will realize they have made a terrible mistake.''
Despite the unusually large protest, Health Minister Els Borst said Tuesday that some 90 percent of the population backed the changes.
An editorial in the Amsterdam daily Trouw said public opinion was still too divided to speak of a consensus. Being the first in the world ``is nothing to be proud of,'' it said Wednesday.
But the national daily Volkskrant said the law sanctioned common practice and eliminated a legal gray area.
Borst reassured legislators the bill could not be abused by doctors because of careful supervisory provisions.
``There are sufficient measures to eliminate those concerns,'' Borst told the senators. Euthanasia, she said, will remain a last resort for those who have no other choice but endless suffering.
Each case is reviewed by a commission comprised of at least one lawyer, one doctor and one expert on medical ethics. The law presupposes a long doctor-patient relationship and requires patients be legal residents of the Netherlands.
It enshrines guidelines adopted by parliament in 1993 that require a clear statement from the patient indicating the choice to die is rational and reasoned, that the suffering be unbearable with no prospect of improvement, and that a second medical opinion concurs.
Outside parliament, some protesters were masked in black balaclavas and carried oversized syringes dripping with fake blood. Others gathered signatures for a petition that already had 25,000 names before the debate opened Monday evening. Several Christian schools canceled classes to allow students from across the country to participate in the demonstrations.
``We don't have the right to decide about matters of life and death, but God does,'' said 19-year-old Henrico van der Hoek as he walked past parliament. ``As Christians, we simply cannot support this law.''
Not all demonstrators were religious. ``I'm not against euthanasia in principle, but this law goes too far,'' said Wendel Rijks, 37. ``It is not a doctor's task to take a life, it's to save lives.''
Several countries - Switzerland, Colombia and Belgium - tolerate euthanasia. In the United States, Oregon has allowed doctor-assisted suicide for the terminally ill since 1996, but its law is more restrictive than the Dutch bill.
In Australia, the Northern Territories enacted a law in 1996, but it was revoked in 1997 by the federal parliament.
The drafters of the Dutch bill denounced a plan from Australia's leading euthanasia campaigner to set up a floating clinic in a ship flying the Dutch flag off the coast.
< Dr. Philip Nitschke had said if the Dutch legalize euthanasia he would offer clients lethal injections in international waters off the Australian coast.
Borst said the Dutch government would do ``whatever it could'' to counter any such effort and stressed that the scheme ``could by no means'' fit into the Dutch rules.
Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.