Netherlands Propose Assisted Dying Law Extension

Caring nurse or doctor holding elderly lady's hand with care.

Caring nurse or doctor holding elderly lady's hand with care.

By Alexander Muir

The Dutch government intends to draft a law that would legalise assisted suicide for people who feel they have “completed life” but are not necessarily terminally ill.

The Netherlands was the first country to controversially legalise euthanasia, in 2002. The law was only to apply to patients who were considered to be suffering unbearable pain with no hope of a cure.

In a letter to parliament on Wednesday, the ministers for health and justice said that people who “have a well-considered opinion that their life is complete, must, under strict and careful criteria, be allowed to finish that life in a manner dignified for them”.

The Minister for Health, Edith Schippers, wrote in the letter that “because the wish for a self-chosen end of life primarily occurs in the elderly, the new system will be limited to” them. She did stipulate the creation of a threshold age. Although details continue to be deliberated, the new law would require “careful guidance and vetting ahead of time with a ‘death assistance provider’ with a medical background, who has also been given additional training”. The proposals also highlight the importance of maintaining and controlling the policy change – the law would include safety mechanisms including third-party checks, reviews and supervision, she said.

The proposal is likely to provoke critics who say the scope of the Dutch euthanasia policies has already expanded beyond its acceptable boundaries, with “unbearable suffering” not only applying to people with terminal diseases but also to some with mental illnesses and dementia.

Despite fierce political opposition, the euthanasia policy has extensive backing in Dutch society, and cases have risen by double digits every year for more than a decade as more patients request it and more doctors are willing to carry it out. Euthanasia accounted for 5,516 deaths in the Netherlands in 2015, or 3.9% of all deaths nationwide.

The suggestion for the change in the law is a shock –  a recent commissioned study into the future and development of the policy in the country established that there was no need to extend the policy further. The ministers disagreed, arguing that “… a request for help (in dying) from people who suffer unbearably and have no hope without an underlying medical reason can be a legitimate request“.

In consultation with ethicists, medical professionals and other experts, the ministers hope to have drafted an amended law by the end of 2017.
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