Belgium has become the second country in Europe after the Netherlands to decriminalize euthanasia. The lower house of parliament has passed a controversial bill giving patients the right to die.
After two days of heated debate, the lower house voted the bill 86-51 in favor of the measure, with 10 abstentions. The result was widely expected, following approval by the Senate last October. The law is expected to come into force before parliament breaks for summer.
Following in the footsteps of historic Dutch legislation passed last year, the Belgian law sets out strict conditions governing assisted suicide. A patient seeking euthanasia must be in a hopeless medical situation and be constantly suffering physically or psychologically. If the individual is not in the terminal phase of his illness, his doctor must consult with a second doctor, either a psychiatrist or a specialist in the disease concerned.
Patients wishing to end their own lives must be conscious when the demand is made and repeat their request for euthanasia. And, unlike Dutch legislation, minors cannot seek assistance to die.
Thursday's vote came after almost two years of parliamentary discussions. The outcome reflected a split between the governing majority of Liberals, Socialists and Greens - and the opposition Christian Democrats and right-wing parties.
The Christian Democrats immediately vowed to challenge the law in court. Critics say the measure gives doctors and patients too much freedom.
Last month, Europe's leading human rights court rejected an appeal by a terminally ill and paralyzed British woman who wants her husband to help her die. The woman, Diane Pretty, passed away last week.