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Europe's growing euthanasia debate

British residents are the first to be able to order a kit designed to test deadly drugs

Debbie Purdy and her husband Omar Puente pose for photographs outside the High Court in London Feb. 3, 2009. Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis, went to the Appeal Court that month in an attempt to clarify the law and protect her husband from prosecution if he helps her to commit suicide abroad. (Andrew Winning/Reuters)

BRUSSELS — Amid the already emotional debate over assisted suicide, one of the world’s leading advocates for legalized suicide has an additional concern: that potential practitioners of suicide might not get an effective dose when they buy drugs to kill themselves.

So beginning this month, British residents will be the first to be able to order a kit designed by Dr. Philip Nitschke — an Australian who shares the nickname “Dr. Death” with American assisted-suicide advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian — to test the potency of their on-hand supply of deadly drugs, usually the barbiturate pentobarbital. Nitschke, who founded the organization Exit International, says the kit will help people make “end-of-life choices,” and hopes that his new product will reduce anxiety for those contemplating suicide.

It may all sound morbid, but debate over decriminalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide is growing, along with — in some countries — the pressure on governments to change their laws to allow some forms of the practices.

Nothing illustrates that more starkly than recent events in Luxembourg. The country’s ruler, Grand Duke Henri, indicated in December he would not support the assisted-suicide decriminalization bill his parliament had just passed, citing his conscience and his Catholic faith. The Luxembourg constitution vested executive power in the monarch and bills required his signature to become law.

So the parliament changed the constitution.

The Grand Duke was stripped of his power to reject laws and the vote went ahead, with the legislation coming into force in March. It allows people who are teminally ill to commit suicide if they make repeated requests to do so and get the consent of two doctors and a panel of experts.

Thus, Luxembourg became the third European Union country to allow euthanasia. The Netherlands was the first in 2002, under similarly strict conditions as Luxembourg, followed by Belgium. Outside the EU, Switzerland allows people to assist in suicide, but not to actually administer the deadly drugs. It is also legal in Albania, the U.S. states of Oregon and Washington, and in various forms in a handful of other countries around the world.

But is the situation with Luxembourg the way of the future when it comes to this question? In Europe, at least, governments may be getting closer to the answer to this question.

Public debate about the practice spiked in 2008, both in countries that allow and those that ban the practice. When Belgian author Hugo Claus, suffering from Alzheimer’s, chose to end his life March 19, it ignited controversy about the right to euthanasia, which has been legal since 2002.