Editorial: Euthanasia-on-demand and without demand – let’s not kid ourselves

Dr Rob Jonquiere, Communications Director of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies, has recently completed a tour of New Zealand at the invitation of the New Zealand Voluntary Euthanasia Society.

Dr Jonquiere supports the 'right to die' as a 'human right' and has argued that 'if you can choose what kind of house you're going to live in' why can you not choose what death?' In a lecture given in 2013 (Fourth Annual SOARS Lecture), Dr Jonquiere has outlined how the original pro-choice campaigners in The Netherlands wanted to argue for euthanasia on the grounds of 'self-determination' (that is, on the basis of unfettered personal choice and without needing to fulfil any particular conditions such as being terminally ill) – euthanasia-on-demand.

However, because it was deemed necessary for doctors to be involved in order to gain public acceptance, and because many doctors 'were not looking forward to assist in cases that did not fit within a medical domain', the campaign focus strategically shifted to advocating for a very select group - seriously ill patients. Having achieved this goal, however, the pro-euthanasia campaigners quickly modified their goals. The debate immediately turned to including 'demented human beings with an adequate advance directive; patients with a chronic psychiatric illness who had come to the end of meaningful treatment; and, elderly people who for a variety of reasons judged their lives completed.' [i]

Consequently, there has been a gradual widening of the categories of those eligible for euthanasia in The Netherlands and Belgium; it is no longer necessary for patients to be suffering a 'terminal' illness; psychiatric conditions including depression qualify, and the law in both countries now allows for children to be euthanised.

These changes are not evidence of a 'slippery slope' but are an inevitable consequence of the argument that it is a human right to be able to end one's life. If certain individuals have a 'human right' to make this choice, then it is irrational to restrict this right to only some people; it should apply to anyone who considers their life not worth living and who demands it.

The stated goal of 'euthanasia-on-demand' may well explain why, despite an outward insistence on effective legal safeguards, the practice of euthanasia in The Netherlands and Belgium routinely exists outside of the law. In Belgium, nearly half of all cases are not reported [ii] and in The Netherlands at least 20 percent of cases are unreported [iii] (reporting is mandatory by law in both countries). In unreported cases there is a higher likelihood that legal requirements are not met, such as the need for a written request (involuntary euthanasia), consultation with palliative care physicians, and a requirement that only physicians perform euthanasia. In Flanders, Belgium, in 2007, one study found 32 percent of physician-assisted deaths were without explicit patient request [iv]; another study noted drugs were administered by a nurse in 41 percent of unreported cases (none for reported cases) [v].

In light of the argument that individuals should have the right to decide how and when to end their lives, evidence that the law is not being followed, along with the widening of eligible categories, is not necessarily concerning for euthanasia advocates. Indeed, it is welcomed by those who support euthanasia as a 'human right', seen as an indication that the current situation is too restrictive and as a rationale that the law be further liberalised to reflect (what is now illegal) practice.

Anyone supporting 'voluntary' euthanasia and/or assisted suicide in New Zealand needs to accept that, within a short time, euthanasia will be demanded for children, those with dementia, depression and other mental illnesses as well as for those who are simply 'tired of life' as is happening overseas. Given that these groups include persons incapable of giving consent, it is inevitable that there will be a push to move beyond strictly 'voluntary' euthanasia despite the persistent denials of pro-euthanasia advocates.

In jurisdictions where euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are already legalised, the move from voluntary to non-voluntary euthanasia has been a very small step. In the Netherlands it has always been the case that it is doctors who make the final decisions about end of life; patients can request it but doctors must ultimately decide. In other words, it is always the doctors who determine whether a person would be 'better off dead' [vi]. When doctors are already the ones judging whether a person would be 'better off dead', there seems little reason why they could or should not make this decision for comatose or incompetent patients without the need for 'informed consent'. Hence, the small step.

Apart from those who are immediately affected, there are wider social consequences, since introducing 'voluntary' euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide will do more than allow a small number of patients who are 'suffering unbearably' to be able to end their lives or have them ended. It will introduce into some of our most important institutions – the medical profession, the nursing profession, hospitals and rest homes – the 'ethic' that it is acceptable to kill, with or without consent; an ethic that will become socially embedded – the so-called 'normalisation' of state-sanctioned killing.

Such an 'ethic' is contrary to and will irrevocably harm these institutions and the human virtues that are most treasured in in our society.



[i] Fourth Annual SOARS Lecture (London, September 20, 2013). http://www.soars.org.uk/index.php/pages

[ii] Smets, T; Bilsen, J; Cohen, J; Rurup, ML; Mortier, F; Deliens, L. "Reporting of euthanasia in medical practice in Flanders, Belgium: cross sectional analysis of reported and unreported cases". BMJ 2010: 341:c5174.

[iii] Onwuteaka-Philipsen, BD; Brinkman-Stoppeleburg, A; Penning, C; de Jong-Krul, GJF; van Delden, M; van der Heide, A. "Trends in end-of-life practices before and after the enactment of the euthanasia law in the Netherlands from 1990 to 2010: a repeated cross-sectional survey". Lancet 2012; 380: 908-15.

[iv] Chambaere, K; Bilsen, J; Cohen, J; Onwuteaka-Philipsen, BD; Mortier, F; Deliens, L. "Physician-assisted deaths under the euthanasia law in Belgium: a population-based survey". CMAJ 2010; 182:895-901.

[v] Smets et al. (2010) ibid.

[vi] Keown, J. "Mr Marty's muddle: a superficial and selective case for euthanasia in Europe". J Med Ethics 2006; 32:29-33.