- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2000

Dutch lawmakers have just the thing for doctors worried about the legality of assisting patient suicides. On Tuesday one chamber in Parliament voted to legalize it, and approval in the second chamber is expected in time for the legislation to become law next year. For the 14-year-old girl unable to cope with chronic pain or for the grandfather worried about the financial burden his care is causing others, the bill makes physician-assisted death that much more attractive an option.

Up until now, doctors ostensibly faced jail sentences of up to 12 years for aiding and abetting suicide. In reality, however, a 20-year-old arrangement with prosecutors protected Dutch doctors from being charged if they followed certain guidelines despite the fact that it was still illegal. The legislation removes even that paper threat and stamps this euthanasia with the government's imprimatur.

Now any patient facing "unbearable suffering" can seek a doctor's help to kill himself. The suffering need not result from terminal illness. Children and grandparents alike can volunteer. Children ages 12 to 16 must have their parents' approval, of course, but older teens are liberated to make their own fatal decisions. As for medical supervision, the physician authorizing the suicide has to consult with at least one other independent doctor who has seen the patient. The death must be "medically appropriate," and doctors themselves may not propose it.

The problem is, even these few restrictions, which are similar to those Dutch doctors have had to follow to this point to avoid prosecution, have often not been followed. For instance, the Dutch government's 1991 euthanasia report cites 1,040 people who were killed by doctors who did not have a request from the patient. Another 8,100 deaths were not reported as assisted suicide, but were cases in which doctors prescribed drug overdoses to bring death. More than half of those occurred without the patient's consent. In 45 percent of cases involving involuntary assisted suicide in hospitals there, doctors did not even consult with family members, U.S. News and World Report noted in an article titled "Death on Trial."

While it's true that the bill would merely legalize a practice that has existed for decades, it would decriminalize a practice that easily confuses a doctor's right to kill with a patient's right to die. Families, communities and doctors for whom the suffering are a burden are thereby relieved of their responsibilities, while patients are encouraged to believe that a life with pain is a life not worth living, either for themselves or for their community. Hospice care, which provides assisted living for those with medical needs, and rehabilitative treatment of chronic pain have almost died out there.

By buying the argument that assisted death is a right, patients second what society is already telling them: If they are sick, old or depressed, it's easier if they are dead. When a society substitutes death for health care, it is neither merciful nor just.

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