Disability and Anti-Euthanasia Groups Outraged at Biased Dutch Study

UTRECHT, August 10, 2005 ( - A new study appearing in the August 8 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine claims that the ‘careful patient evaluations and official practice guidelines’ followed by physicians in the Netherlands is adequate protection for those disabled people who fear for their lives in Dutch hospitals.Â

The study surveyed all general practitioners in 18 of 22 Dutch general practice districts. Researchers found that 44% of all requests for euthanasia or physician assisted suicide were granted. The conclusion of the study is that the safeguards are working just fine, that doctor compliance is high and that those who ask to be killed by their doctors are doing so ‘safely.’

These numbers, however, are misleading and amount to a whitewash, say opponents of euthanasia. Alex Schadenberg, Executive Director of Ontario’s Euthanasia Prevention coalition said that a study like this fails to ask specific questions to uncover the possible abuses related to euthanasia.

In the Netherlands, and those jurisdictions that follow the Dutch model, euthanasia is very narrowly defined as a voluntary act. “Therefore,” says Schadenberg, “any act which is not voluntary does not fall under the definition of euthanasia. The definition issue points to a problem with euthanizing newborns who are not capable of consenting.”

The study also does not address death by deliberate dehydration of patients with dementia or whose disabilities restrict their ability to communicate. This was the case made by the UK’s Leslie Burke who recently lost a court battle with the government to ensure he would not be dehydrated to death when his neurological disorder rendered him unable to swallow. A 2004 report proved that intentional dehydration was estimated at between 4 - 10% of all deaths in the Netherlands.

Other crucial questions were left out of the study. The report avoids asking whether the general practitioner reports all cases of euthanasia or whether the question of euthanasia is ever suggested by the physician. Previous reports proved that nearly 50% of all euthanasia deaths are not reported.

Disabled rights groups are outraged at what they identify as the bias of the study which was funded by the Royal Dutch Medical Association and the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Sports. Calling the report “predictable and self-serving,” Stephen Drake of Not Dead Yet, the leading disability rights group in the US, warned that a large part of the problem is that media often conflate the terms, “terminal illness” and “disability.”

Precisely this confusion was fostered by the bulk of the mainstream press in the case of Terri Schiavo who was routinely characterized as having a terminal illness, though she was in fact merely cognitively disabled and in otherwise good health.

Drake said, “The Dutch ‘guidelines’ for euthanasia aren’t limited to people with a terminal condition at all.”

But Schadenberg says that the Dutch law does not concern itself with illness, terminal or otherwise, “but rather unbearable suffering.”“Unbearable suffering,” he says, for which a person can be killed in the Netherlands, “comprises both physical and mental suffering.”

In Canada, pending legislation to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide proposes to go one better than the Dutch model. Bill C-407 employs the ‘suffering’ criterion and does not address the nature of an illness or its prognosis. The bill has already gone though first reading June 15 and allows euthanasia and assisted suicide based on a person suffering “severe physical or mental pain.”

Further, the proposed Canadian legislation says a patient must only “appear to be lucid” and does not have to be legally competent. It also allows the act of killing to be carried out by anyone as long as a doctor is “assisting.”

Read Newswise coverage of the Dutch study:

Read Spiked Online article, “How a minority in the BMA got their way on euthanasia,”


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