Dutch Poised to Legalize Euthanasia ; Netherlands Law Would Go Furthest on Assisted Suicide; Also on Fall Ballot in Maine

By Marilyn Gardner, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 28, 2000 | Go to article overview

Dutch Poised to Legalize Euthanasia ; Netherlands Law Would Go Furthest on Assisted Suicide; Also on Fall Ballot in Maine


Marilyn Gardner, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Two years ago, Nelika Dumee's family gathered at her mother's home to share an event they had been discussing for a year: her mother's death by euthanasia.

The older woman, who had been diagnosed as terminally ill, said "I want to have the honor to have mercy killing." In a room filled with flowers and candles and "a lot of family talking," she said her goodbyes. Then her doctor administered a lethal injection.

"It was a nice death," recalls Mrs. Dumee. "It was respectful."

It was also technically illegal and morally controversial. For decades, mercy killing has existed in a legal gray area in the Netherlands, not prosecuted as long as doctors follow certain rules. But this fall the Dutch Parliament is expected to legalize the practice. That would give this country, which already has tolerant attitudes toward drugs and prostitution, the most liberal laws on euthanasia and assisted suicide in the world.

The proposed law includes a controversial measure that would allow terminally ill children as young as 12 to request mercy killing or assisted suicide, even if their parents object.

Other European countries, including France and Belgium, are considering proposals to allow euthanasia in certain cases. Switzerland already permits assisted suicide in some situations. In the United States, only Oregon now allows it, although an assisted- suicide initiative will be on the ballot in Maine in November.

As life spans increase and as medical technology and intervention make it possible to prolong life without necessarily improving the quality of it, more patients are expressing a desire to assert autonomy in death. In the Netherlands, and elsewhere, patients talk about the importance of maintaining dignity and control. And Dutch doctors say legalizing the procedure will make it easier to control.

Some 30,000 Dutch patients a year ask doctors about euthanasia, according to Rob Jonquire, managing director of the Dutch Voluntary Euthanasia Society. Of those, about 10,000 pose specific questions, saying, "I think I am at the end of my life." In 1995 (the last official survey), 3,600 people actually chose to end their lives, up from 3,200 in 1990.

"Many people ask for euthanasia because they are afraid," Dr. Jonquire explains during an interview in his office overlooking a picturesque Amsterdam canal. "They want to be master of the final moment."

Once a doctor agrees to help a patient, he notes, "fear fades away. You see people accepting the situation. Instead of having to euthanize the patient, the patient dies naturally."

Jonquire estimates that only about 8 percent of the Dutch population oppose euthanasia. "We think it's wrong for the small minority to prevent the large majority of people from acting according to what we think is a basic human right," he says.

Yet even some doctors reject the practice. "I base my life on the Bible, and I think it is not right," says Peter Hildering, president of the Dutch Physicians League, a 450-member anti-euthanasia group of mostly Christian doctors. "We try to make the Dutch public aware that it is not normal." In most cases, Dr. Hildering says, there are ways to relieve pain and suffering.

With the decline of the Christian Democrats as a political force, the new secular majority here has gradually pushed this field of law away from Christian theological beliefs.

The proposal to allow 12-year-olds to choose euthanasia, even if their parents object, is particularly contentious. Some experts predict that the final bill will raise that age to 16 or18. …

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