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No longer protected

Professor Theo Boer, an ethicist at Utrecht University, thought that the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia in his home country of the Netherlands was a reasonable compromise. He believed that doctors should be primarily concerned with healing their patients, but he could see that there may be times when a patient’s condition would be so unbearable to them that it would be good for a doctor to have the legal ability to help that patient end their life. Euthanasia would be a last resort, and Boer thought, in a very small number of occasions, likely a welcome one.

That was 2005.

In the ten years since then, Boer has become terrified at what this law, which was supposed to be about the compassionate care of people, has unleashed. Over 40 mobile euthanasia teams of doctors ready to bring death to patients; 15% increases in euthanasia deaths year after year; euthanasia for the mentally ill and those with dementia; doctors with conscientious objections to performing euthanasia pressured to do it against their will; and a current rate of one in seven deaths in the Netherlands coming at the hands of doctors.

Boer knows all of these realities and statistics are true, because he serves on one of the five Regional Review Committees tasked by the Dutch law with overseeing euthanasia deaths. He is part of the “safeguards” that were put in place to ensure that the law worked as it was intended—allowing the competent, severely ill to access assistance in dying, without killing or pressuring those who do want to live. 

But the Committees, though they’ve worked hard and diligently, have not been able to stop abuses from creeping in, nor have they been able to stop culture and practice from evolving in such a way that vulnerable people are now at risk, are now dying.

Boer’s assessment of the horrors unfolding around him is that legalising assisted suicide and euthanasia has led to death at the hands of doctors—instead of being a last resort for the most extreme cases—becoming normalised in Dutch society. At a recent conference in Australia, he said that the law has sent an unintended message to those who know that their lives will likely be very, very difficult—the message is “we can do without you.”

Boer’s experience is timely for us in New Zealand, as assisted suicide continues to fill our public conversation. It seems many presently see this as a reasonable outcome; that people with a terminal illness who have a high chance of facing bodily deterioration and pain should be able to get their doctor to help them commit suicide. It’s understandable—Theo Boer thought the same thing in 2005. But in our compassion for the hard cases and our desire to show mercy to those who suffer, let us not forget the risks involved when a society is willing to define a class of people whose lives are no longer protected by law.

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