Why the elderly should fear euthanasia

David Richmond

The proposal that euthanasia and/or physician assisted suicide (PAS) should be legalised targets older people. The reason is not hard to find: people at that end of the age spectrum are beginning to realise that their lives are not infinite. Generally speaking, people fear the process of dying more than death itself. Hence there is a ready audience for the line that older people have the most to gain from legalising these practices. It is ironic, however, that the very people who are the main supporters of legalised euthanasia or PAS have the most to fear from it. What should they fear?

1. They should fear being groomed for a death they really don't want

As a practicing geriatrician I heard time and again, older people telling me that they "didn't want be a burden." Most were not terminally ill: just sensitive to a society that tends to regard its older population as a burden, and therefore likely to accede to even subtle suggestions that they have 'had a good innings.' Dutch statistics show that more than 30% of people requesting euthanasia do so on grounds including not wishing to be 'a burden'. Is that really freedom of choice? The elderly are not the only ones susceptible to this. Doctor Richard Fenigsen reported that in Holland, when Parliament was first considering making euthanasia legal, a group of handicapped adults wrote as follows to the Parliamentary Committee for Health Care and Justice:

"We feel our lives threatened...We realise that we cost the community a lot...Many people think we are useless...Often we notice that we are being talked into desiring death...We will find it extremely dangerous and frightening if the new medical legislation includes euthanasia."

For many older people, the source of the pressure of being thought a 'burden' is their family; younger members feeling thwarted because they are unable to access their older relative's resources, burdensome care-giving or soured family relationships may all contribute. Those of us who work in the sector are regularly faced with such issues.

2. They should fear becoming the victims of death by euthanasia without their consent

Older people almost inevitably at some point cede control of their environment to others and are therefore at risk from those health professionals and others who assume that control and have the power to harm them - including killing them without their informed consent. In Holland the practice has moved rapidly from euthanasia on request (legal) to euthanasia of people who could not, or if they could have, did not, request it. Older people are the majority of victims. In Holland and Belgium many more people suffer the ultimate loss of dignity by being euthanased without their consent than are euthanased on request. If euthanasia were to be legalised, older people would assuredly discover that a minority's fear of dying is replaced by a majority fear of being killed without their consent - with the noblest intentions of course. Psychiatry Professor Herbert Hendin of New York, after personally investigating the practice of euthanasia in Holland, concluded that guidelines established by the Dutch for the practice of assisted suicide and euthanasia were consistently violated and could not be enforced. The most important thing we can learn from the Dutch experience over 30 years is that the practice of euthanasia cannot be controlled by legislation.

3. They should be afraid of an unnecessary end by euthanasia because of incorrect diagnosis or prognosis

As we age, we are increasingly afflicted by disease. It is well recognised that all diagnoses, even in these days of advanced technology, are a matter of probability. That is, there is a chance that the diagnosis is not correct. According to Dr. Jerome Groopman , up to 15% of all diagnoses are incorrect. Clearly, the more diseases one has, the greater the likelihood that at least one diagnosis is incorrect. On average 33% of people aged 65 and over have three or more longstanding diseases requiring treatment. The older one gets, the greater the number of such disorders. The annals of medicine abound with incorrect diagnoses and erroneous predictions of immanent death. There are many records of people being euthanased where autopsies subsequently showed no evidence of fatal disease. In a recent Listener article, the first-hand account of a woman who recovered from a severe episode of blood poisoning included the following words highlighted by the editor: "I had always had an ambivalent attitude to voluntary euthanasia, but to my shock, I found myself vividly understanding the arguments in its favour". But consider: had her illness been in Holland, where euthanasia is legal, and had she expressed such sentiments to her doctors, she might well have been voluntarily euthanased; in which case she would not have been here to tell her story.

Older New Zealanders have to realise that if they allow legislation to pass so that euthanasia and/or PAS become legitimate components of therapy, in thinking that they have seized control over their life's end they will discover too late that they have actually lost it.

Emeritus Professor David Richmond was the Inaugural Masonic Professor of Geriatric Medicine and is the Founder and Chairman of the HOPE Foundation for Research on Ageing


1 Fenigsen R. A case against Dutch euthanasia.  Ethics and Medicine 1990: 6: 11 – 18.

2 Hendin H.  Commentary. The case against physician- assisted suicide – For the right to end of life care. Psych. Times, Vol XXI #2, February 2004.

3 Groopman, J.E.  How Doctors Think. Mariner Press 2008

4 Melbourne Herald Sun 27 May 2002

5 The Listener, February 19 – 25 2011, pages 26 – 28.