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WILL NETHERLANDS ALLOW EUTHANASIA OF NEWBORNS?

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In a sign that the government is moving to expand its liberal euthanasia policy to children, the Justice Ministry said Friday that two doctors on trial for killing severely deformed newborns are likely to be acquitted.

"The prosecutor's office expects they will not be found guilty" because the physicians followed official guidelines for adult euthanasia, said Justice Ministry spokeswoman Liesbeth Rensman.Rensman said Justice Minister Winnie Sorgdrager decided to prosecute the physicians on murder charges only to establish a legal precedent on the issue of infant euthanasia. Such legal exercises are common in the Netherlands, and defendants in such cases are often not sentenced even when convicted.

A judge is expected to rule on the cases next spring.

Euthanasia, or mercy killing, is still technically illegal in the Netherlands. But doctors who follow a set of guidelines - which stipulate that incurably ill patients in unrelievable pain must repeatedly and lucidly ask for death - can expect immunity from prosecution.

While known as the industrialized world's most tolerant euthanasia policy, even these guide-lines exclude some rare and potentially controversial cases, such as severely deformed infants and the comatose.