As David Perrin, Vice-President of the Australian Family Association and a former Victorian MP, explains, there is more to the Netherlands vote to legalise doctor-assisted suicide than meets the eye.
The Netherlands Parliament has recently voted to legalise doctor-assisted suicide. The legislation, passed by 104 votes to 40 votes in the Lower House, is expected to be approved by the Upper House next year. According to a report in the Melbourne Herald Sun, Dutch doctors helped 2216 patients to die last year.
Doctor-assisted suicide has been tolerated in the Netherlands for decades and the politicians have simply legalised what has been established medical practice. But the doctors are much more advanced in what they are doing than the politicians. A recent survey in the Netherlands has disclosed that the indiscriminate killing of patients by doctors is out of control.
The survey published in the prestigious Journal of Medical Ethics has disclosed that there is widespread use of the deliberate killing of patients by a small group of doctors. The article published a 1996 survey of just 405 Dutch doctors who had attended some 6000 deaths identified by death certificates. The decisions are now moving from patients to doctors. The 1996 survey, which follows a previous 1990 survey, indicated that things have got much worse in the Netherlands as they head down the slippery slope.
The number of requests for doctor-assisted suicide increased, as did the number of doctor involved. The main reason that patients requested doctor-assisted suicide was to eliminate “suffering,” which is a much wider definition than pain.
The survey showed that it only needs a small number of willing doctors to facilitate a large number of patient deaths by doctor-assisted suicide or intentional killing by the doctor. One in five cases showed that there was intentional termination of life by the doctor without a specific request from the patient. Doctors did not discuss the termination of the life with the patient because the doctor thought the termination of the patient’s life was in the best interest of the patient (sic). When doctors did consult with another doctor before the termination, they found another doctor who was sympathetic to their point of view. However in 40 percent of the cases the doctors who terminated the patients’ lives did not consult another doctor. In 30 percent of the cases, the doctor who terminated a patient’s life did not consult with any of the relatives of the patient.
Sixty percent of doctors who had been involved in doctor-assisted suicide or deliberately shortening patients’ lives without their consent did not bother to report the situation to authorities. Thirty percent of them said it was a private matter between doctor and patient. The main method used by doctors to terminate a patient’s life was an overdose of drugs. However, 64 percent of patients who were terminated by an overdose of drugs and 50 percent of patients terminated by withdrawal of medical treatment had not been consulted.
With newborn babies, the Dutch doctors mainly terminated the lives of these babies by an overdose of drugs, but in 40 percent of cases the doctor simply withdrew all medical treatment.
When making the decision to withdraw medical treatment from newborn babies, in 20 percent of cases the doctor did not bother to discuss the matter with the parents. Psychiatrists in the Netherlands are now assisting their psychiatric patients to commit suicide on the basis of their “suffering”.
This 1996 survey of doctor-assisted suicide in the Netherlands shows that where doctor-assisted suicide is accepted by a society, it quickly moves to a situation where doctors take decisions upon themselves without consultation with the patients, families, other doctors or the authorities. The Netherlands experience should be a clear indication to the community and politicians in Australia, that it only takes a small group of willing doctors to make life-terminating decisions without consulting anyone, while authorities turn a blind eye. Not suprisingly, the Royal Dutch Medical Association supports the new legislation claiming the law would champion patient rights and bring the practices “into the open”.
The politicians in the Netherlands have shown that the safeguards were useless and they were never prepared to enforce the previous laws. So as the current practice of doctors terminating patients lives without consultation becomes more widespread, we can expect to see politicians pass more laws to legalise these terminations. Patient autonomy for life-ending decisions is not a valid argument because once doctors get permission informally or formally to terminate a patient’s life, no one is safe.
Firstly, it sends the wrong message to those vunerable members of our community, particularly the young who are having a difficult time in their lives.
Secondly, it allows some doctors to use their exclusive access to life-threatening drugs to be put in the position of life or death decisions without adequate supervision.
In Australia, the Australian Medical Association has recognised that the practices of a small group of doctors has the potential to damage the whole medical profession. This is why they have in the past correctly opposed doctor-assisted suicide.