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Right to die?

May 28, 2010

Assisted suicide is tolerated in the Netherlands, under certain conditions. But right-to-die advocates in the country think the law should be expanded to cover healthy elderly people who consider their lives "complete."

An older man in a wheelchair sits with three older women on a bench
If you no longer want to live, do you have an automatic right to die?Image: picture-alliance/ dpa

The Netherlands is one of a handful of countries where very ill people have the right to medical assistance to kill themselves if they choose to do so. But right-to-die advocates say that right should also be extended to those who want to end their lives before the onset of illness and incapacitation that comes with age.

A petition asking the Dutch parliament to debate whether all people over 70 have a right to suicide gathered more than 117,000 signatures. The petition's sponsors hope to put it on the parliamentary agenda after elections in June.

Assisted suicide is technically against the law in the Netherlands, but there are exceptions. Doctors who assist with suicides cannot be punished if they can prove they adhered to strict medical and ethical guidelines, and if the patient was suffering from an "unbearable and hopeless" illness and had explicitly and repeatedly requested the doctor's assistance in dying.

A 'completed' life

But the Dutch organization De Einder, or Horizon, and other right-to-die advocacy groups say that older individuals should be able to determine when they want to end their own lives, even if they are not suffering from serious illness. Instead, they should have the option of committing suicide at a point where they consider their lives "complete."

Horizon's chairman, Enno Nuy, admits that this can be difficult to define.

A cemetery with autumn leaves on the ground
Some say ending one's own life should be a right for allImage: AP

"Mostly it concerns people who are older, have no pleasant perspectives or expectations left, who have no friends or relatives, and who are facing Alzheimer's or dementia," Nuy told Deutsche Welle.

Nuy said this is different than simply being depressed, and that when Horizon's counselors talk with people considering ending their lives, the say that their wishes would not change by altering something in their lives, such as giving them a new medication or a new living situation.

"(They feel that) there is no reasonable expectation things will improve," he said.

Right to Die-Netherlands, known by the Dutch acronym NVVE, is another group which supported the petition. In an informational pamphlet available on the group's website, Director Petra de Jong said "the elderly should be allowed to make a well thought-through choice at the end of their lives, and that such a choice will be entirely up to them."

"All this is in the hope that it will contribute to an open debate, that will lead to the realization of a solution for this difficult and highly emotional problem for people who consider their life completed and, therefore, prefer death over life," de Jong said.

A bedroom at Swiss assisted suicide clinic Dignitas, with suicide medication on the table
Assisted suicide means access to medication that ends life without discomfortImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The pamphlet says that people who feel this way are suffering from a combination of circumstances: nonthreatening ailments, the loss of family and friends, loss of independence, physical decline including loss of sight, hearing or control of bodily fluids, or a fear that they will become a burden to others.

Burdens of living versus dying

Erik Borgman, a professor of religious studies at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands, said the idea of allowing otherwise healthy people to end their own lives is going a step too far. He summarized the argument in favor of this type of assisted suicide as "Why go on living, just because I'm alive now?"

"But the problem is that you cannot turn the argument around - you cannot say, 'Well, why should I be living?' and then when you do not have a good answer to that, then the conclusion shouldn't be, 'Well, then I might just as well be dead,'" Borgman told Deutsche Welle.

Borgman said society should be more concerned with convincing people that they have value even if they are old, lonely, infirm, or unable to take care of themselves.

"We should have a system of care in general that shows people that they are not a burden on society when they need care and when they are dependent on other people," he said. "They are part of our society, too."

Author: Stephanie Siek
Editor: Kyle James