Most of the time, suicide is seen as a horrific tragedy, one to be avoided at all costs. But for some people, suicide no longer becomes something to be prevented, but something to be celebrated instead — for the ill, the disabled, the elderly. And there is no better example of this than the gushing media coverage of an elderly Dutch couple who chose to be euthanized together.
Nic and Trees Elderhorst, both 91, had been married for 61 years. Both had seen their health increasingly fail, with reduced mobility, poor eyesight, and memory loss. Both feared living in a nursing home. So in an interview with The Gelderlander, the couple’s daughter explained that they chose to die together by euthanasia.
In 2012, the couple had already made advanced directives stating their wish to be euthanized — but they had to go through with it before either of them suffered memory loss or dementia to the point that their request could not be honored.
“It soon became clear that it could not wait much longer,” their daughter said. “The geriatrician determined that our mother was still mentally competent. However, if our father were to die, she could become completely disoriented, ending up in a nursing home. Something which she desperately did not want. Dying together was their deepest wish.”
So they applied to the Levenseindekliniek, a clinic which handles euthanasia requests. It took six months, but eventually, their joint euthanasia was approved. They planned their own funeral, said goodbye to friends, neighbors, and loved ones, and died in their hometown of Didam, surrounded by their family. “They gave each other a big kiss and passed away confidently holding hands,” their daughter said. “According to their own wish.”
On the surface, it sounds like the perfect way to die — maybe even romantic. Their deaths garnered international media coverage, with most outlets highlighting that they died holding hands. But the reality is that the Elderhorsts’ deaths showcase just how very much is wrong with the legalization, and increasing popularity, of assisted suicide and euthanasia.
Neither Nic or Trees was terminally ill. Both had health problems, but neither seemed to be facing impending death, and neither was suffering. The two feared the potential of suffering in the future, of being separated, or of living in a nursing home. So death became the preferable option, with their friends and family supporting their choice. Their children were even present when their parents died. And yet this is something to celebrate?
Evidently, when people are old enough, suicide is no longer something to be prevented at all costs. It’s no longer a tragedy if you’re elderly.
Ultimately, legalizing assisted suicide opens the door to these kinds of abuses, where eventually, anyone who wishes to die can do so. And slowly but surely, people begin to be robbed of their intrinsic value and dignity, all while euthanasia advocates call it “death with dignity.” The idea that suicide has somehow become the “dignified” option should be disturbing, but instead, people celebrate it as the preferable choice — because when you begin to devalue life, there’s no way to stop.
This story also highlights another issue with assisted suicide: it becomes possible for people like the Elderhorsts to become victims of pressure and coercion from their family. That may not be the case for this couple specifically, but it’s a very real danger for people, especially the elderly, to be pushed into assisted suicide because they feel that they are a burden on those around them. And those left behind, meanwhile, could profit off of the death. This exact scenario is already happening in the Netherlands.
The sad thing is, studies have found that most people do not request assisted suicide because they fear pain or suffering. They do so because they are scared, they’re suffering from depression, and they’re worried about becoming a burden on others. One study from the New England Journal of Medicine found that few patients requested assisted suicide because of pain or a disease; instead, they did so because they had a loss of autonomy, and were scared of being a burden on others and of not being able to enjoy life. Other studies found similar results; people requesting assisted suicide are typically struggling with depression and hopelessness, and have poor family support. What these studies also found is that when these core issues are treated — such as depression — the request for assisted suicide is withdrawn.
So a couple scared of being a burden on their children and terrified of living in a nursing home could have had family members who reassured them that they will never be a burden, who promise to take care of them no matter what. Instead, their family members seemingly reaffirm their fears and agree that it’s better for them to die.
Ultimately, what this shows is that our society views some lives as more valuable than others. Some are worth saving, while others should be allowed to die. But the truth is, anyone who is suicidal — and that is what those requesting euthanasia are — should be given proper treatment. We wouldn’t hand a suicidal 30-year-old a loaded gun and enthusiastically support his or her self-inflicted death. But if the person is disabled or elderly, then that’s exactly what we do. Instead of reaffirming that their lives still have value and meaning, we agree that they should die, and even help them to do it.
There’s nothing to celebrate about that.