Although assisting suicide is only legal for a small fraction of the world’s population, its advocates in the U.S. and abroad remain focused on promoting this dangerous legislation. While opponents of euthanasia and assisted suicide have long warned of the dangers to vulnerable populations, evidence of abuse is mounting in Europe.
In one country, the Netherlands, overall euthanasia deaths soared by 13 percent last year – and this included many patients with dementia and some suffering only from psychiatric problems. This poses the question, “How can those with dementia and mental illness ‘chose’ assisted suicide?”
The number of people in the Netherlands killed by medical euthanasia has more than doubled in the 10 years it has been legal. The nation reported that the number of documented euthanasia deaths totaled 4,188 in 2012. Shockingly, this number now represents more than 3% of all deaths nationwide from all causes. One explanation for the large increase in 2012 is the introduction of mobile euthanasia units allowing patients to be killed by lethal injection when family doctors refused.
In 2002, the Netherlands passed a law legalizing euthanasia. This law codified the twenty-year-old practice of failing to prosecute doctors who have committed euthanasia under certain conditions. While there are other guidelines, two major ones are 1) that the patient must be experiencing unbearable pain; and 2) the death request must be voluntary. It is important to note that the Hague Court of Appeals ruled that the pain guideline was not limited to physical pain, and that “psychic suffering” or “the potential disfigurement of personality” could also be grounds for euthanasia.
Of the 4,188 reported deaths in 2012, 42 people with dementia and 13 patients suffering severe psychiatric problems were killed. This raises alarm that any so-called guidelines are insufficient to protect the vulnerable. This message is carrying over into the debate in the United States.
Currently, doctor-prescribed suicide is legal in only Oregon, Washington, and Vermont –and may have some legal protection in the state of Montana, due to a court decision. The most recent state to enact the practice is Vermont, and its law contains less so-called safeguards than does the Netherlands statute.
For the first three years, the Vermont law grants doctors immunity from prosecution for providing a lethal dose of medication if they follow a loose list of rules, including making sure the patient is terminally ill and making a voluntary, informed decision. In 2016, that list of rules expires, with the hope that doctors will have established their own personal guidelines.
After the rules expire, the law protects physicians who prescribe legal drugs for their patients from civil or criminal liability, and from any sort of professional misconduct charges. The law will still require informed consent, mandating that doctors inform patients of “all feasible end-of-life services,” including palliative care and hospice, but it will no longer mandate when or how doctors respond to requests, as long as “the patient makes an independent decision to self-administer a lethal dose of medication.”
While Vermont works towards a possible repeal of its dangerous law, things are heating up in New Jersey.
The assisting-suicide advocacy group, Compassion & Choices, formerly the Hemlock Society, is at work promoting a bill in New Jersey in essentially the same language that governs both Oregon and Washington. The language, developed initially for Oregon, purports to “safeguard” the practice and restrict it to the terminally ill and the competent. However, the so-called safeguards (similar to those failing in the Netherlands) have been widely criticized by medical groups and those in the disability right community.
The measure pending in New Jersey has gotten traction under the false notion that it will be providing terminally ill people with merely one more “option.” However, this is far from the truth. If you live in New Jersey it is critical to point out that states cannot afford to legalize this dangerous and uncontrollable practice of turning doctors from healers into those who prescribe death to their most vulnerable patients.
LifeNews Note: Jennifer Popik is a medical ethics attorney with National Right to Life. This column originally appeared in its publication National Right to Life News Today.