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Wednesday, 11 April, 2001, 09:43 GMT 10:43 UK
Live and let die is new Dutch religion

By Yasha Lange

Call it pragmatic tolerance. The Dutch appear to be world leaders in the field of progressive attitudes.

The sale of limited amounts of soft drugs has already been tolerated for years. Last year, prostitution was legalised. Last week gays could officially marry.

And now the senate has approved the legalisation of euthanasia - under strict conditions, it should be said.

Are the Dutch really that progressive? First and foremost, they are pragmatic.

The Dutch quite simply had to be able to associate with different cultures, sail the seas, learn other languages and accept differences - hence the tolerant attitude

Take prostitution. The Dutch tend to think that it will happen anyway, whether they prohibit it or not.

So they legalise it - to prevent prostitution from going underground, to have access to the prostitutes, promote condoms and hygiene and to prevent mistreatment of women forced to work as prostitutes.

The logic is simple - tolerate it, rather than prohibit it and subsequently lose control.

The same line of reasoning applies to soft drugs and euthanasia: people will smoke soft drugs, so it might be better to educate them about it openly; doctors will be faced with requests from people who would prefer to end their suffering, so perhaps better be realistic about it.

Christians pray in front of the Dutch parliament to protest against euthanasia
Christians prayed to stop euthanasia bill - but the church's influence has waned
It is not a coincidence that several of these laws have been passed in recent years.

For the first time in a century, the Christian Democrats are not in the coalition government.

Individual freedom and equality for all are the norms for the current coalition of liberals and social democrats. Christian values no longer determine public policy - and indeed, merely a third of the Dutch are members of a church.

This pragmatic tolerance has a historical reason, too.

Sex at a young age, is another good example of the same tolerance - at 12 they can get contraceptives

Amsterdam is traditionally a city of immigrants. Jews from Spain and French protestants found a safe haven, centuries ago.

More importantly, Amsterdam is a city where trade has always been more important than ideology or religion - overly strong views would only hamper relations.

That attitude is still visible today. Moreover, being small and internationally-orientated, the Dutch quite simply had to be able to associate with different cultures, sail the seas, learn other languages and accept differences. Hence the tolerant attitude.

Sex education

Sex at a young age, is another good example of the same tolerance. Undesirable according to many, but treated pragmatically by the Dutch.

Kids will have sex, whether you like it or not. So, at 12 years old, they get education and can go to a clinic to get contraceptives. Anonymously, if they want. Their parents won't know.

Does this stimulate Dutch adolescents to have sex at a younger age, as critics might claim? No. Dutch youngsters have their first sexual experience relatively late. And more importantly, the number of abortions and unwanted pregnancies among teenagers is the lowest in the world.

Yashe Lange is a correspondent on the Netherlands NRC newspaper

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