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Rotterdam, Netherlands
Rotterdam, Netherlands

'Right to die' for elderly back at centre of Dutch debate

Published on : 9 February 2010 - 9:38am | By NRC International (Photo:
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A citizens action group wants to legalise assisted suicide for all people over 70.

By Folkert Jensma for NRC International.

All Dutch people over 70 who feel tired of life should have the right to professional help in ending it, demands a citizens' initiative in the Netherlands called Out of Free Will. It will start collecting signatures on Tuesday in support of this proposed change in Dutch legislation, hoping to place the matter firmly on the parliamentarian agenda. A number of prominent Dutch citizens have come out in support of the initiative, including former ministers and artists, legal scholars and physicians. 
More from NRC International

Under current Dutch law, euthanasia is only legal in cases of “hopeless and unbearable” suffering, which in practice means it is limited to those suffering from serious medical conditions and in considerable pain. Only doctors are allowed to assist in euthanasia. Helping somebody commit suicide who does not meet the qualifications stipulated in the current euthanasia law is illegal. The Netherlands legalised euthanasia in 2001 and is one of the few countries in the world to have done so.

Listen to a Newsline interview with Marie-Jose Grotenhuis from Out of Free Will:

A new medical trade

Out of Free Will does not only want to decriminalise these acts, it wants to found a new profession to assist those weary of life in ending it. The group has suggested this task be carried out by specially trained and certified nurses, psychologists or spiritual professionals who could verify the request for assisted suicide in a series of conversations with the patient. Only after a second healthcare professional has confirmed the patient’s death wish, would they be provided with lethal drugs. The same caretaker would finally supervise the patient as he takes them.
The group paints the following scenario: the specialists should ensure that the patient is of sound mind and that their request is explicit, logical and consistent. The assistants must make sure the death wish is more than a rash impulse, the product of depression or the symptom of another illness, and that the patient has considered the consequences of his actions for those who will survive him. Once the patient has taken his own life, the suicide assistant writes a report that can be reviewed by the municipal coroner. The case is then assessed by the regional euthanasia approval commission, which has already been instituted to oversee the application of the current Dutch euthanasia law.
Out of Free Will proposes that healthcare professionals looking to assist in suicides will need to complete a special “Completed Life” training programme and join a professional association responsible for maintaining standards of professional, transparent and safe conduct. The group argues suicide assistance should only be provided to Dutch citizens. Currently, an estimated 400 elderly people take their own lives every year, sometimes by violent means.
Enjoy old life – up to a point
In an interview in the office of Dick Swaab (65), a leading member of the group and the managing director of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam, three of the initiative’s prominent supporters explained why they felt suicide assistance should be made legal. Former minister and self-described feminist Hédy d’Ancona (72) said arguing for the right to choose one’s time of death was a natural extension of her lifelong battle for emancipation.
Legal scholar Eugène Sutorius (63) said he considered the right a cultural matter, and that he was looking for freedom to face death “in a stoic manner”, without fear of a legal system that branded assisted suicide as criminal.
For neurologist Swaab, death is straightforward. “Throughout the animal kingdom, individuals are simply replaced, rather than patched up endlessly,” he explained. Aging constitutes nothing more than “cells wearing through use,” Swaab said. His argument: when you feel you have no more life left in you, you should be able to say so, and act on it.
All three expressed enthusiasm about ageing. Everything becomes easier to put into perspective as time passes, they said. Sutorius called it an “immense pleasure”. D’Ancona referred to it as “a great phase of life.” But they also expressed fear of what is still to come. D’Ancona said the knowledge she would be unable to end her life when she wanted to left her with a “nagging feeling”. She said it took some of the enjoyment out of what was otherwise a pleasurable phase of her life. Sutorius too feared a moment would soon come when he would come to experience the drawbacks of ageing. “I do not want to outlive myself,” he said.
Completed life – time to end it?
The citizens action group refers to that moment as the time “life is completed”. The lack of purpose that befalls elderly people when their family, friends and acquaintances have all passed away. When they feel left behind, unable to escape an empty existence. Dutch Legal scholar Huib Drion proposed providing the old with an “acceptable means to end their lives at a moment they see fit” as early as 1991. Based on opinion polls, Out of Free Will believes broad popular support exists to pass this option into law. The issues that would arise from such a move are surmountable, the group feels.
The risk of abuse, for instance. The elderly may find themselves being pushed into taking their own lives by an unsupportive social circle. Wouldn’t legalising suicide assistance be taking things a step too far? Sutorius denied this, calling the group’s proposal “a step in the right direction”. Taking the responsibilty of assisting suicides away from doctors would help these keepers of life steer clear of situations where they would be required to take it.
According to Sutorius, criminal law has little bearing on assisted suicide for people over 70. Responsible, transparent, assisted suicide, carried out in a proper manner, is far removed from the capital offences listed in the criminal code, he said. “No one stands to win or gain personally from it, and there is no disproportional violence harming other peoples’ interests involved.”
Still, criminal law knows a plethora of cases involving so-called “angels of death”: nurses or doctors who carried out mercy killings. According to Sutorius, “illegitimate coercion” can never be ruled out completely. The law can only do its best to fight it. Sutorius recalled that the introduction of legal euthanasia in the Netherlands was once seen as a corruption of medicine too. “It was thought to be the first step onto a slippery slope that would lead the medical profession to lose its integrity. But I have seen nothing of the kind happen.”

Only for 70 and over
The group wants to draw a line at age 70. Helping young people commit suicide “cannot be justified,” Sutorius said. When a younger person kills himself, it is always “a disaster”, he claimed. “An older person can understand more, has more perspective."
The group admits the age of 70 was a somewhat arbitrary cut-off point. “Whether it should be 65 or 90 is a good question. We think that once someone has reached old age, he has proved his ability to live. He can then chose to leave this life in a procedural, medically-supervised manner,” Sutorius said.
The three think the proposed role of a suicide assistant would be akin to “taking a walk with death”. A job advertisement would read something like this: “Wanted: nurse or spiritual caretaker in possession of a Completed Life Certificate.” Who would respond to such an ad? “I would not hesitate to do so myself,” Sutorius said. "You would be guiding someone to death at his express request, in the most humane way possible,” D’Ancona added.
Still, since suicide itself is not illegal under current law, why would anyone want to burden someone else with the taking of his own life? Because, Swaab explained, “you need to know how much of what you need take”. Usually, the required drugs are not hard to come by and under current law, relatives are usually the ones procuring the lethal drugs, sometimes with help from a physician who has been tricked into providing them under false pretences.
Also, a do-it-yourself suicide leaves ample room for error. “Current practice is in no-one's interest,” Sutorius said. “Also, people might act on a whim. Or because they are depressed or otherwise ill and unable to oversee their own situation.” Suicide assistance might therefore also help to prevent people from taking their own life, Swaab added.


Claudine Fourie 16 August 2012 - 6:40pm / Netherlands


Tony Nicklinson (SWNS)
'Yet another period of misery and anguish'

This poor man is not allowed to Choose for Himself and his Own Body & Life of Suffering and Dependence on others to help him, but the power abusing 'gods' can do to you and your body too, as they very well please.

James Leonard Park 26 March 2012 - 1:40pm / USA

As other comments suggest,
careful safeguards will be needed to make this proposal
for voluntary death over age 70 a reality.
We do not want to encourage or endorse irrational suicide.
Here is my essay on the Internet,
which offers several safeguards to separate
irrational suicide from voluntary death:
"Completed Life or Premature Death?"

Claudine Fourie 21 March 2012 - 8:03pm / Netherlands & New Racist, Terrorist, Genocidal ANC South Africa

I am also advocating and campaigning for the Worldwide Legalisation of THE RIGHT TO CHOOSE TO DIE - EUTHENASIA for everybody, because there is far too much unnecassary suffering, homelessness, joblessness, starvation, abuses, neglect, over-population, disrespect, greed, terrorism, violent crimes, etc in this world of total evilness. Why are evil terrorists allowed to steal, abuse, violate and harm others and doctors are arbitrarily allowed to enforce their evil 'treatments' on innocent victims, yet one cannot Choose to End one's Own Life Peacefully and with Dignity?
There should also be COMPULSORY STERILISATION, especially for the males and FREE CONTRACEPTIONS for everybody to curtail the growing over-population and suffering of unwanted and starving babies, children, people. If Countries can afford to waste monies on huge useless governments and the purchasing of weapons and arms, then they can afford it.

Anonymous 14 March 2012 - 11:07am / new zealand

people should be free to chose

Candice Botha 6 March 2012 - 6:31pm / Republic of South Africa

Yes I also agree to the Right to Die, Euthenasia or "Out of Free Will" whatever they wish to call it because it is your own life and you should have a Right to end it irrespective of whether you are ill or not, because there is so much hardship and poverty around us now in South Africa that it is badly needed. Why is the Government allow the senseless murdering etc of innocent people on such a massive scale yet they do not want to allow Euthenasia.
I agree with Claudine that it should be allowed to everybody who choses to have it. It is better than homelessness, poverty or being abused.

Claudine Fourie 20 February 2012 - 1:27pm / South Africa

Yes and why only after 70?
There are children too who are being immorally abused by strangers, their own
'families' or 'parent/s', the Authorities, etc.
I do not believe that we were born to suffer, so why should we be forced to
suffer. I cannot stand suffering or seeing others including little innocent
babies, children, the elderly, having to starve and suffer in this cruel, dangerous, corrupt and evil world.

Anonymous 1 September 2011 - 9:45pm / Belgium

The right to die should be for everybody. But there must be a delay between the request to die and the actual assisted dying. For a healthy person to die the time should be six months in which time professionals can try to change his or her mind. After the six months it is the individual who decides.
Also for younger persons their organs should be used to save lives. Of course they can't choose who they save because knowing who will make them more inclined to go ahead with it. So no "Seven Pounds" situations.
I agree with above. You do not choose to be born, but you should be able to choose when to die. Democracy, where the majority decides for everybody else. Where does the protection of the minority groups?
I hope there is no such thing as the afterlife. If there is then we've all been doomed the moment we got born.

Anonymous 1 September 2011 - 10:00pm / Belgium

..the moment we were born. Also persons that aren't suicidal, old or whatever might feel more at ease because there is always a plan B they can count on. (with plan B meaning, there is no plan C). This might make them even happier because there is always a "rescue" plan in the case something goes wrong.
I the future everybody will have the right to die in a clean and professional manner. Not using the clumsy and sometimes very painful techniques that are being used today. It is just a matter of time. People will realize that this is the right way to go forward. It is simply an extension of equal rights between man and women. Gay rights and other minorities. The only thing that should be done is prevent that the dying isn't done at a whim, because of a temporary state of mind. Six month should do the trick.

Claudine Fourie 19 August 2011 - 3:44pm / England

I totally agree with Euthenasia or The Right To Die for everybody including the poverty stricken and disabled and mental health patients who have to suffer to survive. It is your life and you should have the right to decide when to end it with dignity and non-violently.
This world is overpopulated, corrupt, jobless and crime-ridden anyway, so why should we be forced to stay alive against your will.

ankr 2 August 2011 - 8:51am / Canada

why is it only 70 or above? What if a younger person would want to end his/her life, but doesn't want to leave a mess after him/herself?

I just don't think like life has anything better to offer and would be nice to go to sleep and never wake up. Plus with the world overpopulation and scarcity of resources - we would be doing this world a favor.

Antinatalist 11 May 2011 - 3:14pm

"When a younger person kills himself, it is always 'a disaster', he claimed"

Isn't it ironic that nearly everyone thinks creating new life, i. e. childbearing is morally not reprehensible? It might be hard to grasp for many people, though yes, they exist: people who just do not want a n y t h i n g in life, except for ending it. Given that nobody is asked if he wants to be born, legalizing suicide and dying a humane death (obtaining barbiturates is not legal) after one has reached the age of consent should simply be a right of every human being, no ifs and buts.

For everyone who's brave enough and wants to tackle these issues I wholeheartedly recommend David Benatar's book "Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence".


gerarda m jense... 16 May 2010 - 7:32pm / permanent resident USA,Dutch pasport

Dead is not to fear,even though you can have a beautiful life when you are young and strong,
there is nothing pretty about getting old, lonely,cripple,senile and often a vegetable, having other people looking after you day and night. That is not quality. Everybody has the right to die with dignity and the right to make that decision when that will be.

gerarda m jense... 16 May 2010 - 7:32pm / permanent resident USA,Dutch pasport

Dead is not to fear,even though you can have a beautiful life when you are young and strong,
there is nothing pretty about getting old, lonely,cripple,senile and often a vegetable, having other people looking after you day and night. That is not quality. Everybody has the right to die with dignity and the right to make that decision when that will be.

gerarda m jense... 16 May 2010 - 7:19pm / permanent resident USA,Dutch paspoort

Yes I believe that everybody has the right to dr. assist suicide after the age of 70. Even without a terminal illness.We are told to be responsible for our own life then why not for our own dead.
It would be comforting to know this option is available and is lawfull.It does not mean you have to do it.
But one should have a choice.

Anonymous 11 March 2010 - 9:34pm / USA

I am a student researching on Euthanasia legislation globally with the aim of proposing a change of laws in New Jersey to be more pro- physician assisted suicide and euthanasia. How can I get in touch with the group " Out of Free Will'?
Thanks for your assistance.

gerarda m jense... 18 May 2010 - 5:47am / USA

Anonymous,If you find out about the group "out of free will" Please let me know. I am very interested in proposing legalized euthanasia in every state of the USA Not only for the terminally ill patients. We have a right to make our own choices in life and that includes dying with dignity.gerarda

Paula 10 February 2010 - 4:34am / U.S.A.

Don't throw God's gift back in his face. Try to think about and do for others, take pleasure in sitting quietly reliving the many experiences of your life, and the many loves and friends you've shared your life with, allow yourself to care passionately about something (politics, your garden, music, -- so many things), and you'll have plenty of reason to live. I'm 76, no family left, homebound with crippling arthritis, but just as much in love with life as I ever was. I know that life is actually short compared with the afterlife. That's right. You won't escape living by killing yourself, so you might as well get used to it.

Anonymous 9 February 2010 - 8:58pm

Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so, for those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow, die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

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