In 2001 The Netherlands was the first country in the world to legalise euthanasia and, along with it, assisted suicide. Various government ‘safeguards’ were put in place to show who should qualify, and perhaps more importantly, doctors acting in accordance with these ‘safeguards’ would not be prosecuted.
For the five years immediately following the law’s enactment physician-induced deaths remained level - and even fell in some years.
In 2007 Theo Boer, a European assisted suicide watchdog wrote that ‘there doesn’t need to be a slippery slope when it comes to euthanasia. A good euthanasia law, in combination with the euthanasia review procedure, provides the warrants for a stable and relatively low number of euthanasia.’ Most of his colleagues drew the same conclusion.
But, says Theo Boer, today; “We were wrong - terribly wrong, in fact. In hindsight, the stabilisation in the numbers was just a temporary pause. Six years ago, the numbers of these deaths show an increase of 15% annually, year after year.” And since then the number has doubled with the 6,000 line to be crossed this year. Euthanasia is on the way to become a ‘default’ mode of dying for cancer patients.
As the assisted suicide bill goes to Lords in the UK, the Dutch watchdog who once backed euthanasia warns UK of 'slippery slope' to mass deaths. Boer’s intervention comes as peers prepare to debate the Assisted Dying Bill, promoted by Lord Falconer, a Labour former Lord Chancellor.
The bill, which has its second reading, would allow doctors to prescribe poison to terminally ill and mentally alert people who wish to kill themselves.
Professor Boer, speaking in a personal capacity last week, said he now believed that the very existence of a euthanasia law turns assisted suicide from a last resort into a normal procedure. Anti-euthanasia campaigners and disability activists called on politicians to listen to the professor’s warning.
He said he was concerned at the extension of killing to new classes of people, including the demented and the depressed, and the establishment of mobile death units of ‘travelling euthanizing doctors’. Professor Boer said campaigners for doctor-administered death ‘will not rest’ until a lethal pill is made available to anyone over 70 who wishes to die. ‘Some slopes truly are slippery,’ he added. Professor Boer admitted he was ‘wrong – terribly wrong, in fact’ to have believed regulated euthanasia would work. ‘I used to be a supporter of the Dutch law. But now, with 12 years of experience, I take a very different view.
Doctors in neighbouring Belgium are collectively killing an average of five people every day by euthanasia – with a 27 per cent surge in one year.
And last February the government approved euthanasia for children. Consent by minors?
The latest euthanasia figures for the Netherlands show that nearly one in seven deaths are at the hands of doctors. In 2012, there were 4,188 deaths by direct euthanasia – 3 per cent of all deaths – and 3,695 deaths by direct euthanasia in 2011. The figures do not include deaths by terminal sedation, where patients are rendered unconscious before they are dehydrated and starved to death, an act often referred to as ‘euthanasia by omission’.
Under Lord Falconer’s bill, a terminally-ill patient would be able to ask for drugs to kill him or herself. Two doctors would need to approve, and to be satisfied the patient was of sound mind and settled view, and had not been influenced by others.
PhD Ethics and the Development of Human Values