updated 3/8/2010 9:02:12 PM ET 2010-03-09T02:02:12

A campaign to give elderly people in the Netherlands the right to assisted suicide says it has gathered more than 100,000 signatures, hoping to push the boundaries another notch in the country that first legalized euthanasia.

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The signatures are enough to force a debate in parliament, where it is certain to face resistance. Even if widely approved, the proposal would normally go through a lengthy process of committee work and consensus-building that could take years.

The legalization of euthanasia for the terminally ill in 2002 was preceded by decades of discussion and quiet negotiation that attached stringent conditions and medical supervision.

Spokeswoman Marie-Jose Grotenhuis of the "Of Free Will" campaign said Monday that the group had hoped for the 40,000 signatures needed to bring the idea to parliament when it launched its initiative in February. It has so far received 112,500 signatures, in a country of 16 million.

The group proposes training non-doctors to administer a lethal potion to people over the age of 70 who "consider their lives complete" and want to die. The assistants would need to be certified and make sure that patients were not acting on a whim or due to a temporary depression, but from a heartfelt and enduring desire to die.

"We've been overwhelmed by the amount of reactions, especially because people took it so seriously and reactions were mostly positive," Grotenhuis told reporters Monday.

Many religious groups oppose any form of suicide on principle. The Royal Dutch Medical Association — which played a key role in supporting the nation's euthanasia law — says it opposes the assisted suicide idea in part because it believes it would undermine doctors' position in the current euthanasia policy.

Under Dutch law, two doctors must agree a patient is suffering unbearably from illness with no hope of recovery, and wants to die, before he or she can be given a lethal cocktail of sedatives.

Several European countries allow some assistance to terminally ill people who wish to die.

In Switzerland assisting someone to die is not illegal as long as there is no "selfish motivation." Belgium has followed the Dutch model, while Britain and France allow terminally ill people to refuse treatment but stop short of allowing active euthanasia.

The Dutch doctors' association says it fears patients would use an assisted suicide policy as a way of getting around their own doctors.

Grotenhuis said Monday her group would wait for national elections on June 9 before bringing the matter before parliament.

Around 2,500 euthanasia cases were reported in the Netherlands in 2009, a number that has risen gradually in the past decade. An official panel set up to review euthanasia cases attributes the rise to greater willingness of doctors to disclose the practice.

Medical association spokesman Sander Hofman said Monday that not all doctors agree that assisted suicide should be banned or that doctors should play no role whatsoever when one of their patients is determined to commit suicide.

"For instance, a doctor probably has a role in easing the suffering of a person who is refusing to eat or drink," he said.

He said the organization was setting up internal debate panels to discuss the matter further.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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