What we’ve learned from two decades of euthanasia in the Netherlands

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“Look closely at the Netherlands because this is where your country may be 20 years from now.” This somber warning from Theo Boer, a former proponent and administrator of the Netherlands’ 2002 euthanasia law who is now an outspoken skeptic, should give Americans pause. “The process of bringing in euthanasia legislation began with a desire to deal with the most heartbreaking cases – really terrible forms of death,” said Boer, according to a recent investigative piece in The Guardian. “But there have been important changes in the way the law is applied. We have put in motion something that we have now discovered has more consequences than we ever imagined.”

In 2002, the Netherlands enacted the Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide Act, which legalized physician-assisted suicide for those whose suffering is “unbearable with no prospect of improvement.” Now, a staggering number of all deaths in the Netherlands occur by assisted suicide, with one quarter overall induced in some manner. The unfortunate experience of nearly two decades of legalized euthanasia in the Netherlands has shown the pro-euthanasia argument is based on misguided platitudes that ignore its effects on society, and especially on the most vulnerable who need our support.

Euthanasia advocates are willing to cast aside the principle of “do no harm” based on their assertion that the goal of ending suffering justifies the act of killing an innocent human being. Today, we can see the results of legalized euthanasia in the Netherlands, and they aren’t good.

READ: Euthanasia advocates now propose killing patients by organ donation

The Death with Dignity Organization argues, “[I]t is the terminally ill people, not government and its interference, politicians and their ideology, or religious leaders and their dogma, who should make their end-of-life decisions,” But as has been seen in the Netherlands, assisted suicide tears at the fabric of society and families.

Those who might contest the decision of their loved one and want to help often bear the pain of loss and guilt for the rest of their lives. Dutch citizen Marc Veld, for example, was concerned that his mother was planning to be euthanized. He thought her suffering was, according to The Guardian, “neither unbearable nor impossible to alleviate.” Veld wanted the opportunity to tell the doctor his concerns, but due to patient-doctor confidentiality, he instead received a phone call from the doctor, who merely said, “I’m sorry, your mother passed away half an hour ago.”

Assisted suicide has also become a “remedy” applied to those suffering from dementia as well as those who have autism and intellectual disabilities. Individuals often write advanced directives opting for assisted suicide if their mental state or condition deteriorates beyond a certain point. Regarding dementia patients, Dutch medical ethicist Berna Van Baarsen, who resigned in protest from a review board over a rise in dementia-related euthanasia cases, has pointed out, “It is fundamentally impossible at this stage to establish that the patient is suffering unbearably, because he can no longer explain it.” The Guardian highlights the case of one man with dementia who, despite having changed his mind, was constantly pressured by his wife to abide by his advanced directive until he was finally euthanized. In 2018, approximately 120 dementia sufferers were euthanized in The Netherlands — a number that has increased in recent years.

Four British and Dutch professors wrote a joint letter on their findings after examining 16 cases of euthanasia in which they determined that individuals with autism and other challenges were simply dealing with “normal characteristics and variations of their lifelong condition or disability” including “inability to adapt to new situations, maintaining social contacts or having meaningful relationships; a lack of effective coping strategies; and treatment refusal due to an inability to consider feasible alternatives to euthanasia.” In the Netherlands, rather than advocate for social changes to better accommodate people like this, the widespread availability of euthanasia has put vulnerable people at risk for no other reason than expressing normal characteristics of their condition.

READ: Canadian man: Doctors denied me health care and pushed euthanasia instead

As states continue to enact euthanasia laws, every American needs to understand what the slippery slope of such laws may eventually mean on a personal level, and for his or her loved ones. In the United States, physician-assisted suicide laws have gained momentum in the last decade. The first such law, Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, was enacted in 1997. Now six states — Oregon (1997), Washington (2008), Vermont (2013), California (2016), Colorado (2016), Hawaii (2019) — and the District of Columbia (2016) have “Death with Dignity” laws. Other states, including New York, are poised to follow suit.

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