• Editor

Euthanasia Statistics: The Netherlands’ Numbers

We’re about to vote whether or not to legalise euthanasia, and it’s not an easy debate. The intent might seem clear, but it can have far-reaching, unintended consequences and we need to think hard about the impact it may have in future. This might be hard to visualise so let’s take a look at the Netherlands where euthanasia was made legal 19 years ago. The facts present a disturbing tale for legalisation.

The Netherlands’ Experience

In 2001, The Netherlands became the first European country to legalise euthanasia. The legislation set forth ‘due care criteria’ which physicians are required to meet when approving a request for euthanasia. Regional committees review each case of euthanasia to monitor the practice and compose annual reports which are available in multiple languages to share their country’s experience.

So let’s learn from the reports. Because they’re a very real warning to NZ about legalising the right to die.

Rates of euthanasia increase

In 2002, the first year that euthanasia was practiced, there were 1,882 cases (out of a total population of 16,149,000). That number tripled within 16 years to over six thousand people – while the population grew just 4% in the same time period.

For the purpose of comparison, if these rates were replicated in New Zealand we would lose about 600 mothers, fathers, sons, daughters - due to euthanasia in a year.*

Children are not protected

As if legal euthanasia for those aged 16 years and older isn’t bad enough, children as young as 12 were made eligible - with parental consent. Then, in 2016, the Minister of Health declared that a law for children under 12 wasn’t necessary as they would be covered by the current law because “a doctor in case of ‘absolute necessity’ can always invoke the condition of necessity.” Worse, prosecutors will not charge in cases of child euthanasia as long as the Groningen Protocol - a directive for physicians to assess ending the life of a newborn - is followed.

In 2018, 3 children aged 12-17 were euthanised.

Reasons for choosing euthanasia

The 2018 annual report tells us the health conditions and ages of people who chose euthanasia. The criteria is that the patient’s suffering must be “unbearable and hopeless.”

Of the 6,126 people who opted for euthanasia:

  • Over 90% were patients with incurable cancer (4,013); neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis (382); cardiovascular disease (231); pulmonary disorders (189); or a combination of these conditions (738).

  • “Multiple geriatric syndromes” accounted for 205 cases. This includes conditions such as blindness, hearing loss, osteoarthritis, balance problems or cognitive deterioration.

  • Early-stage dementia accounted for 144 deaths – these were patients who had cognitive awareness of their condition and deemed competent to make a decision. Two additional cases were in advanced stages and an advance directive was relied on to make the decision.

  • 67 people with psychiatric disorders chose euthanasia (10 of these were under age 40).

  • Other conditions’ (such as chronic pain syndrome) was cited for 155 persons.

Imagine your loved ones choosing euthanasia for any of these conditions, when help and support such as palliative care could help the ‘unbearable and hopeless’ become manageable, and bring meaning to their remaining days.

Controversial cases are inevitable

A highly publicised case in the Netherlands was a woman with Alzheimer’s disease who was euthanised against her will but with the support of the family. Who is able to determine the patient’s true wishes when they are incapable of mental clarity? Who would want to be faced with this situation?

Two additional controversial cases involved a 20-year-old victim of sexual abuse during childhood and whose doctors determined that her psychological suffering was unbearable and unlikely to improve, and a 41-year-old alcoholic who saw no way out of his condition. To most of us it seems more care and support could have changed the outcomes. The message this sends to other people suffering in similar ways is that death can be an easy way out.

What do the doctors say?

In 2015, the Royal Dutch Medical Association polled 500 doctors on their opinion regarding euthanasia. 60% of the doctors felt “pressured into euthanasia by their patients or by the family.” Fully 90% reported that the burden on doctors is underestimated.

Our health care workers are under enough stress as it is. How do we ask them to carry the additional burden of approving a patient’s request to die and then carrying out the final act? Putting this pressure on them is unfair and unnecessary.

Reject the End of Life Referendum

The facts presented in the reports from The Netherlands show us that we should reject the referendum and not allow euthanasia to be legalised.

The proposed law opens the door to many people dying and putting even more pressure on our health care workers. Controversy will arise and people will suffer through agonising decisions involving their loved ones. Families in some instances will become divided. And we’ll expect our doctors to make decisions no one should be asked to make.

If we allow the End of Life Act to go forward, we open the door to new forms of suffering and difficulty for Kiwis. The Netherlands’ numbers foretell serious consequences for us.

*Calculation based on NZ 2020 population estimated at 5,031,108 as of 14/9/20.