The Hague: Almost 15 years after legalising euthanasia, the Dutch government may broaden the law to give elderly people who are not sick the legal right to assisted suicide if they feel their lives are "complete".
The project, which is unlikely to be put forward as a draft law before elections due in March, was already triggering strong debate Thursday across The Netherlands.
"People who believe after deep reflection that they have completed their lives, should be able under strict conditions to end their lives in the dignified manner they choose," the Dutch health and justice ministers said in a letter sent to parliament late Wednesday.
The Netherlands and neighbouring Belgium became the first countries in the world to legalise euthanasia in 2002.
But it is carried out under strict conditions, and only after a minimum of two doctors have certified that there is no other reasonable solution for the patient and that their suffering is "unbearable and without any hope of improvement".
Last year there were some 5,516 cases of euthanasia in the country -- or 3.9 percent of all registered deaths.
More than 70 percent of those who opted to end their lives in this way suffered from cancer, while some 2.9 percent had dementia or psychiatric illnesses. It was also a steady increase on the 3,136 cases registered in 2010.
The sensitive issue has often raised eyebrows abroad as terminally-ill minors aged between 12 to 18 are also allowed to opt for euthanasia while certain mental conditions, such as dementia, can be found to constitute "unbearable suffering."
'Assistant in death'
The proposed draft law will be drawn up after consultations with doctors and medical practitioners.
But acknowledging that the belief of "having accomplished one's life is mainly something felt among the elderly", it would only apply to senior citizens, the ministers said, without specifying any ages.
It would be for people who "no longer see any possibility of giving their life meaning, deeply feel their loss of independence, and remain isolated or lonely perhaps because they have lost a loved one," the ministers said.
"But to be able to end their lives, they need help."
An "assistant in death" -- someone with medical and special training -- would have to authorise an assisted suicide after ruling out that there is any treatment which could overcome the "wish to die."
As in euthanasia cases, a committee of specialists would afterwards review that the law had been followed.
For 95-year-old Pieter Jiskoot it would be a blessing as he has sought for years to be able to end his days, but does not want to do so alone.
"I have lost my wife and by daughter. My family no longer come to see me and I can no longer read," the life-long booklover told the public broadcaster NOS.
"I am left with just my thoughts, and those always turn back to the past. The future has disappeared."
Fears for vulnerable and lonely
Assisted suicide remains illegal in The Netherlands, but in 2013 a man who admitted having helped his 99-year-old mother to die was not punished by judges who ruled he had "acted out of love."
But several political parties slammed the idea and many Dutch were troubled, raising fears for "vulnerable, lonely and desperate" people.
The Socialist Party warned such a law could lead to "pressure on elderly people, who will feel that they are a burden on their community."
The hashtag #voltooidleven (#lifecomplete) was trending on Twitter and Health Minister Edith Schippers was quick to defend the project, saying it was not "death on command."
There would have to be a very "conscientious procedure", Schippers told NOS.
"This shouldn't involve people who are lonely or depressed and whose problems can be resolved in a different way," she said.
According to a recent poll, some 64 percent of Dutch people are in favour of there being "a pill to end one's life" for those elderly people who want it....