THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) - Facing a last gasp of protests, the Dutch government urged Parliament on Tuesday to approve the last stage of a bill that would make the Netherlands the first country to let doctors help patients end their lives.
The government argues the bill will hardly change the current tolerated practice of mercy killings, and that euthanasia would occur under strict guidelines.
A handful of religious protesters kept vigil outside government offices until after midnight, then resumed their demonstration as the 75-seat upper house reconvened Tuesday morning. A vote was expected in the evening.
The lower house already had approved the legislation.
Justice Minister Benk Korthals told the upper house the bill formalizes the guidelines adopted in 1993 under which doctors have been assisting suicides with tacit approval. The government at the time was led by the same Christian parties that now oppose the bill, he said.
``It's a good thing that at a certain moment common practice becomes law,'' Korthals said.
In the weeks preceding the debate, the upper house was swamped with more than 60,000 letters - an unusually high amount - most of them urging the legislators to vote against the bill. The anti-euthanasia group ``Cry for Life'' gathered 25,000 signatures on a petition.
After 30 years of public debate on euthanasia, the lower house passed the bill in November by a vote of 104-40. The margin may be narrower in the Senate, but it rarely overturns laws enacted in the lower house. The ruling coalition holds a clear majority in both houses.
The progress of the bill was being closely watched around Europe and by pro- and anti-euthanasia groups in the United States.
Germany's justice minister criticized the Dutch legislation, and said the emphasis should remain on therapy to reduce suffering. Speaking on ARD television, Hertha Daeubler-Gmelin questioned the idea of mercy killings, saying it involved ``the decision of a third person on the death of a human being.''
The Vatican strongly denounced the bill after it was passed by the lower house last year.
Under the new law, a patient would have to be experiencing irremediable and unbearable suffering, be aware of all other medical options and have sought a second professional opinion. The request would have to be made voluntarily, persistently and independently while the patient is of sound mind. Doctors are not supposed to suggest it as an option.
The new law also would allow patients to leave a written request for euthanasia, giving doctors the right to use their own discretion when patients become too physically or mentally ill to decide for themselves. An independent commission would review cases to ensure the guidelines were followed.
Doctors could render the service only to legal residents of the Netherlands.
Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.