Other People's Lives: Reflections on Medicine, Ethics, and Euthanasia

By Fenigsen, Richard | Issues in Law & Medicine, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview
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Other People's Lives: Reflections on Medicine, Ethics, and Euthanasia


Fenigsen, Richard, Issues in Law & Medicine


Part Two: Medicine Versus Euthanasia

Chapter XXIX. The Shaping of Public Opinion

In Holland, the opinion polls conducted in the last three decades have shown an increasing acceptance of euthanasia by the public: in 1986, 76 to 77 percent of the respondents supported euthanasia (whether voluntary or involuntary), (538) in 2001 the percentage rose to 82. (539) The consolidation of the present overwhelming majority must be seen as a remarkable phenomenon in the very diversified Dutch society where so many religious denominations coexist and no less than eleven political parties compete in the elections.

One of the influences that has contributed to creating those exceptionally high percentages in favor of euthanasia was the way the polls were conducted. With social acceptance of euthanasia known to be on the rise, asking solely the positively construed questions of the type "Do you agree with ...," as all the questionnaires did, was bound to elicit many quick and less than thoroughly considered affirmative answers. The results could be different had the questionnaires been drawn up in a way that would induce the respondents to consider both the pros and cons of euthanasia. (540)

The selective information supplied to the Dutch public was of utmost importance in shaping opinion on the issue of euthanasia. In the last thirty years a great number of books, monographs, official documents, press reports and scientific papers on the subject have been published in Holland, and symposia have been exceedingly frequent. Among those thousands of publications and telecasts a few were open-minded on the issue of euthanasia, most favored it, and discussed euthanasia as an established practice beyond any dispute. From 1982 to 1985, 166 items concerning euthanasia were published in a large circulation moderate Dutch daily, Brabants Dagblad; only two of these opposed euthanasia. Of the eleven existing TV corporations, only one telecasts programs allowing the opponents of euthanasia to explain their point of view. The Dutch opponents of euthanasia who wish to state their views in print do so in small bulletins read only by themselves or in little known periodicals. As a rule publishers reject manuscripts that oppose euthanasia. The very well researched critical history of the euthanasia movement written by Dr. Issac van der Sluis was rejected by eight publishers and finally printed by the author at his own expense. My book opposing euthanasia had been rejected by four publishers before Van Loghum Slaterus in Deventer decided to publish it. The Dutch press, usually eager to pick up every piece of news on euthanasia, did not report that the European Committee of Medical Ethics and the World Medical Association condemned Dutch euthanasia.

How does the situation in America compare with that in Holland? Of course the U.S. is much less accepting of euthanasia, there is no national consensus on the issue (yet), and the resistance to euthanasia is more powerful than in Holland. But similar developments have begun.

The Dutch advocates of euthanasia emphasize that making the issue debatable was the first step on their way to victory. (541) In the United States euthanasia became debatable long ago. The next step to follow, according to the Dutch, is the stroomversnelling, "the rapids." This is now beginning in the United States. Key media are approached and easily won. It is in the nature of the media to seize upon genuine news. "Thou shall not kill" was news 3,500 year ago, it isn't any more. Legal, logically justified, morally approved killing is news. Printable matter is supplied in abundance by the pro-euthanasia movement. There is little opposition from the other side: the opponents of euthanasia still put too much confidence in the stability of traditional values, and they find it awkward to expound publicly the truths that in their view are self-evident.

The intervention of courts has become an important factor, helping to persuade the public that allowing, hastening, even causing death is a matter of justice.

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