Euthanasia in the Netherlands
The Euthanasia Act came into force in the Netherlands on 1 April 2002. The number of requests has remained at more or less the same level for the last decade according to NIVEL, the Netherlands Institute for Health Services Research. In 2010, around four people in 10,000 submitted a euthanasia request to their doctor. The number of euthanasia registrations has increased and the issue has been raised more often with patients. The review committee recorded 3,136 registrations of euthanasia in 2010. In the past, pain was a major reason to end someone’s life but now dignity and a sense of purpose have increased in importance.
“When you are ready, put the bag over your head. Then slowly open the helium valve.” An instruction film made by Dutch psychiatrist Boudewijn Chabot explains how someone can kill themselves using a roasting bag and two tanks of helium. Self-help methods are becoming less of a taboo.
Euthanasia under certain circumstances was made legal in the Netherlands ten years ago. The law permits assisted suicide for people whose suffering is unbearable and hopeless. But for others who want to end their lives, there is no legal recourse. Suicide instruction films have been produced with them in mind.
Dr Chabot has been involved in the issue of “self-administered euthanasia” for years. In addition to methods such as not eating and drinking, or a lethal combination of medicines, he has now released a film showing another suicide method:
“If you breathe in pure helium, you lose consciousness from one moment to the next and you die ten minutes later. That sounds frightening, but for people who have come to the end of their lives due to a serious disease or old age and who want to say farewell to their loved ones, this offers them the possibility of dying safely, surrounded by their nearest and dearest.”
The aim is to die in a humane and dignified manner. But Right to Die NL director Petra de Jong doesn’t find it humane at all. “Who wants to die with a roasting bag over their head? Besides, it is difficult to carry out this method without the help of others. Assisting a suicide is a criminal offence in the Netherlands, so that’s a problem.”
Dr Chabot strongly advises people to open the valves on the helium tanks and put the bag over their head themselves. Then death cannot be categorised as assisted suicide. Yet Right To Die NL insists that the helium method is not ideal. Ms De Jong: “We advise people to take a fatal combination of pills. We offer a support service to explain this method on our website.”
To mark Euthanasia Week, Right To Die NL is organising The End, the first ever film festival devoted to the subject of euthanasia. One film, Medeleven [Sympathy] is about how someone can end their life. A 91-year-old man goes to pharmacies in Belgium to buy drugs for a lethal dose. His wife has died and he does not want to go on living, but he does not meet the criteria for legal euthanasia. The film shows the relief the man feels when he has finally obtained the suicide drugs: he has taken control.
Ms De Jong believes the taboo about death has diminished since the introduction of euthanasia legislation. “The subject has become a part of life. A result of this is that people really want to be in control. I increasingly see self-help methods being discussed.”
Inez Beaufort, Professor of Health Ethics at Rotterdam's Erasmus Medical Centre has noticed this too.
“All over the world, there are people who want to die but often they only do something about it in secret. A study in Britain has shown that a large section of the population wants the choice, but that doctors are against it.”
She thinks that Dr Chabot’s helium method gives people a clear sense of the possibilities open to them. The more instruction films, the better. “But it does put the shops that sell party supplies, including helium, in a difficult position.”
Dutch party-supply outlets don’t seem to find it a problem. One sales assistant at a shop in Amsterdam says: “I have no idea what I’d do if a little old lady turned up asking for a helium tank. I’d probably just rent her one. It would just be a shame that other people wouldn’t be able to use it for blowing up balloons.” She doesn’t see it happening any time soon though. “A tank like that is much too heavy for an elderly person.”