Dutch Euthanasia Case Ignites Assisted Suicide Debate

Doctor acquitted after drugging and euthanizing dementia patient

An "euthanasia kit" / Getty Images

The acquittal of a Dutch doctor who drugged and euthanized a dementia patient against her will sparked outrage in the United States as assisted suicide bills spread.

On Wednesday, a Dutch court acquitted a doctor who admitted to administering lethal medication to a dementia patient with the help of her family. The 74-year-old woman had previously indicated her preference for euthanasia, but when she declined to follow through on those promises the doctor drugged her coffee and killed the woman as her family members restrained her. The Hague District Court ruled that the doctor, who was not named, had not violated the 2002 law that legalized euthanasia.

The acquittal comes just before Maine becomes the ninth state to legalize assisted suicide. Matthew Valliere, executive director of the anti-assisted suicide Patient Rights Action Fund, called the death a tragedy, adding that euthanasia laws are ripe for abuse.

"The legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide has led to tragic abuses both abroad and here in the United States," he said. "Patient autonomy erodes away when doctors, insurers, and a profit-driven health care system make qualitative judgments on whether a person’s life is worth living. It's time to abandon this cruel practice."

The Netherlands euthanasia law differs from the way assisted suicide is practiced in the United States. Eight states and the District of Columbia currently allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to patients who are terminally ill, but the patients themselves must administer the medication.

Compassion and Choices, America's largest supporter of assisted suicide, said that it "respects the rights of every nation" to enforce their own laws, but added that it did not know enough about the case to comment. Kevin Díaz, the group's chief legal advocacy officer and general counsel, said the group opposes the Dutch approach. He said such a case would not happen in the United States because the law is targeted only at terminal diagnoses, rather than dementia.

"We don't support euthanasia for dementia because euthanasia allows someone other than the patient to administer the medication and no U.S. jurisdiction allows euthanasia, so this story isn't applicable in the United States," he said in an email.

Opponents do not see it that way. Kris Hanson, a widow of the assisted-suicide opponent J.J. Hanson, called the decision to acquit a "second tragedy" in the Netherlands. She said assisted suicide has expanded in scope since the 2002 law was adopted. The law originally limited euthanasia to those aged 12 or older, but the country has since extended permission for doctors to euthanize infants. The "unbearable suffering" standard of the practice has increasingly been used by those citing psychiatric problems, rather than a terminal illness. Hanson pointed to the dementia patient as a warning sign of what could happen if assisted suicide spreads in the United States.

"Her death was anything but voluntary," Hanson, a community relations advocate at the Patients Rights Action Fund, said. "The United States should take note of where the practice of euthanasia and assisted suicide has led in other places and avoid this dangerous path."

Maine's assisted suicide law will go into effect on September 15.