PARIS, March 31 -- In European countries that have struggled through their own end-of-life debates in recent years, the case of Terri Schiavo has sparked widespread interest and befuddlement at how politics and faith intervened in what most Europeans view as a strictly medical decision.
In the Netherlands, where euthanasia has been legal since April 2002, the struggle over whether to remove Schiavo's feeding tube would not have happened because "here it's more accepted that the doctors make those decisions," said Rob Jonquiere, head of the pro-euthanasia group NVVE.
_____Terri Schiavo Dies_____
Photo Gallery: A photographic look at the Schiavo case.
Video: Brother Paul O'Donnell announces Schiavo's death.
Guardian's Report: Report by Dr. Jay Wolfson, guardian ad litem for Theresa Marie Schiavo, for Gov. Jeb Bush and the Fla. 6th Circuit Court.
Terri Schiavo's Unstudied Life (The Washington Post, Mar 25, 2005)
"It's terrible, this type of judicial fighting over a person who can't do anything about it," Jonquiere said in a telephone interview from his home in Amsterdam shortly after Schiavo's death. "In the Netherlands, the doctors are making these decisions. The feeding tube and the hydration are considered medical treatments, and if they are determined to be futile, they can be stopped."
Nico Mensing van Charante, a Dutch physician who is often called to provide a second opinion in end-of-life cases, called the Schiavo case "a circus" and said the decision to remove her feeding tube would have been clear-cut in the Netherlands. "It's the end of a treatment that doesn't make any sense -- it's not euthanasia or assisted suicide," he said. "If you stop the feeding, it's a medical decision, so it's a natural death -- nothing to declare or notify."
The notion that a feeding tube is a medical treatment that can be withdrawn arose from a landmark 1989 case in the Netherlands involving Ineke Stinissen, a comatose woman whose long illness and eventual death closely mirrored Schiavo's.
Stinissen fell into a coma in 1974 because of problems with anesthesia during childbirth. When her husband asked for her feeding tube to be removed a year later, the nursing home caring for Stinissen refused, fearing prosecution. The courts eventually ruled that the feeding tube constituted a medical treatment; the tube was removed in 1990, and Stinissen died 11 days later.
Belgium followed the Netherlands by legalizing euthanasia in 2002 under strict conditions. Ten other European countries allow some form of what is known as "passive" euthanasia. In one of those, Switzerland, a doctor is permitted to provide a patient life-ending drugs, though the doctor is not permitted to administer them. Only Greece and Poland outlaw all forms of euthanasia.
Late last year, the lower house of the French parliament, the National Assembly, approved a "right to die" bill that would allow the terminally ill to refuse treatments that could extend their lives. The bill is in the Senate, the upper house.
In 2003, the last year for which statistics are available, 1,815 euthanasia cases were reported in the Netherlands. Because euthanasia is believed to often go unreported, the actual number was likely higher.