Right to choose

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

Around 4,000 Dutch senior citizens will be making an emotional appeal to politicians in The Hague on Tuesday; ‘if we're tired of living, allow us to end our lives. Even if we’re not suffering from an incurable disease, allow doctors to prescribe suicide medication’.  

At the end of January, the lower house of parliament will debate a controversial bill that expands existing euthanasia legislation.

"I'm 81 years old and still reasonably healthy. However, if I start to decline I want to be able to determine whether not I have treatment. Hospitals frequently mean having a lot of pain and suffering for only a few extra months of life, and I want to decide whether or not I have treatment. It is my life, after all."

That is an excerpt from one of the letters sent to politicians in the hope of convincing them that something has to be done for senior citizens who wish to end their lives. The letters are in support of a private initiative by the pressure group A Free Choice (Uit Vrije Wil) that has already attracted 117,000 signatures. The petition will be presented to the lower house of parliament's security and justice commission on Tuesday.

The current euthanasia law will be 10 years old in April; under very strict regulations, Dutch doctors are allowed to help their patients end their lives if they have expressly requested euthanasia. Euthanasia is permitted if patients are experiencing unbearable suffering; this includes incurable diseases, both mental and physical. All cases have to be reported to a special euthanasia commission.

In 2011, there were 2136 reports of euthanasia and assisted suicide. The number of people requesting euthanasia has risen steadily since 2006.

"My mother is 92 and she is done with living. She has an eye disease and her field of vision is gradually diminishing and she’s becoming more and more dependent. She really wants to die because this is not a life for her anymore."

According to Right to Die-NL and A Free Choice, ending one's life is a decision that elderly people must be allowed to make for themselves. They also must be allowed to ask for and receive assistance from a doctor to help them achieve that goal. The Royal Dutch Medical Association (KNMG) says there is no need to change the euthanasia law and points out that its position on the voluntary termination of life recently changed.

KNMG spokesperson Eric van Wijlick: "We now recognize that elderly people with various minor diseases and ailments that aren't by themselves life threatening can, when taken together, amount to unbearable suffering and we now consider those patients to be covered by the current euthanasia law."

Death wish
The KNMG says doctors find it difficult to deal with requests from patients with only minor ailments because unbearable suffering is difficult to quantify. Doctors must consider every request for voluntary termination of life very seriously. The organisation says that care, caution and thoroughness are even more important when it concerns life and death. The KNMG has called for an investigation to determine the number of elderly people who are tired of living.

For the elderly who are tired of living but who suffer from very few physical or mental problems, the KNMG recommends they simply stop eating and drinking. Eric van Wijlick: "Doctors can assist by prescribing morphine so that patients sleep until they die. Patients can also refuse to undergo further treatment."

Foreign media rarely has anything good to say about the Dutch euthanasia law; 'the Dutch terminate life far too often and frequently' is the angle that foreign journalists most often pursue. According to Petra de Jong of Right to Die-NL, that view is hypocritical:

"Euthanasia takes place just as often abroad as it does here in the Netherlands, the only difference is that here it is done openly and there people do it secretly. I was a practising physician in 2002 when the euthanasia law came into effect; I was so happy because it meant that we could dispense with all that secretive stuff. Finally, it was possible to discuss the issue with your colleagues, openly and honestly. Doctors just have to adhere to the regulations."

Termination clinics
Right to Die-NL acknowledges that a significant number of doctors have a problem with euthanasia and assisted suicide and has decided to open a voluntary termination of life clinic in the spring. It will help people who fulfil the legal requirements for euthanasia or assisted suicide but whose own doctors still won't help them. The clinic plans to set up mobile teams to assist people to terminate their lives in their own homes. The KNMG is vehemently opposed to the termination of life clinic and has advised doctors not to co-operate.

The excerpts are from letters posted on the 'dear members of the lower house of parliament' website: www.geachtetweedekamerleden.nl