Dying the Dutch way
The Dutch senate voted this week on euthanasia, passing into law a bill that had been approved by the lower house of parliament last fall. With the vote, the Netherlands becomes the first country in the world to legalize voluntary euthanasia. Though the law outlines strict criteria that must be followed before the request for euthanasia is granted, many critics voiced their concern about allowing one person to kill another, the role of physicians, and how the policy might be abused. Passage of the law brings into the public arena a practice that has been going on for many years in the Netherlands, although until now has not been formally endorsed by the government. It rekindles the debate about how far individuals should be allowed to control their life and death, and who if anyone should be allowed to help them. Should the Dutch be proud or ashamed of their historic first, and what will it mean for the rest of Europe and the world?
Making policy for euthanasia
Debates about helping people die are not new, and neither is euthanasia in the Netherlands. In 1993 the Dutch parliament adopted guidelines under which doctors engaging in voluntary euthanasia would not be prosecuted -- this week's vote turned those guidelines into law. Among the rules that must be satisfied for legal voluntary euthanasia:
Enabling choice or devaluing life?
Does such a policy empower people to choose how best to die or does it devalue life by making death too easy? The Dutch policy permits patients to request that euthanasia be performed if they become physically unable to make their wishes known when the time comes. This is intended to make sure patients have their wishes honored, but also turns over to the physician discretion about when to perform death. Requiring at least two physicians to decide offers some safeguard, but removing the final decision from patients opens the door for potential missteps, especially since legalization of euthanasia may lead to an expectation that patients will use it.
Should doctors prescribe death?
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of legalized euthanasia is the confusion of roles it may create for physicians. Should doctors be healers as well as killers? Some critics claim that doctors acting as agents of death and health at the same time can only undermine trust in the medical profession. But that trust is between doctors and their patients, and many patients hope they can rely on their doctor to help them whatever their condition requires -- treatments to cure or prevent disease as well as treatments to relieve pain and suffering, which may include hastening the end of life. The question is not whether any of us must choose death but whether we may, and whether we can enlist our physician in the process.
Whatever any of us thinks about the choice of euthanasia, the Netherlands has opened the next stage of debate over assisted death, by becoming the first country to legalize it. How far should we be permitted to go in controlling the time and manner of our death, and what is the role of the state in preventing or aiding our decision? The Dutch now know the answer to these questions -- the rest of us must wait and wonder.
"Ethics Matters" Archive
where you'll find other columns from Jeffrey Kahn
on a wide range of bioethics topics.
Separated sisters going home
Surgeon strike may be nearing end
Research targets deadly hidden injuries
Bat bite saliva new stroke treatment?
Another artificial heart implanted
Kidneys may hold blood pressure clue
N. Y. plans to heal skyline
Stocks rise on Case departure
Lieberman's presidential announcement today
New arrests may be linked to UK ricin scare
Jordan says farewell for the third time
Shaq could miss playoff game for child's birth
Ex-USOC official says athletes bent drug rules
|Back to the top|