Assisted Suicide Rates Steady After Dutch Legalization

By Amir Khan on July 12, 2012 12:03 PM EDT

Injection
Even though assisted suicide became legal in the Netherlands in 2002, the frequency of the practice has remained the same, according to a new study (Photo: Creative Commons)

Even though assisted suicide became legal in the Netherlands in 2002, the frequency of the practice has remained the same, according to a new study, published in the journal the Lancet on Wednesday.

Researchers found that although doctor-assisted suicide is legal, in 2010, euthanasia resulted in 2.8 percent of all deaths in the Netherlands. While that figure is higher than the 1.7 percent that it accounted for in 2005, it is comparable to the levels seen between 1995 and 2001, researchers said.

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Under Dutch law, people can request to die and may be administered a lethal dose of medications if two doctors agree the patient is suffering "unbearable" pain with no prospect of recovery. The majority of people who request doctor-assisted suicide are cancer patients.

Dutch doctors must also report all doctor-assisted suicide cases to the Euthanasia Commission, which are then reviewed by a panel of doctors. If the panel finds the doctor did not act in accordance with the rules, the doctor can be fined, sanctioned or even held criminally liable.

Researchers found that ending life without explicit patient request occurred in just 13 out of nearly 7,000 cases in 2010 - less than 1 percent of cases. That falls counter to Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney's claims that "forced euthanasia" makes up 5 percent of all deaths in the Netherlands.  

"In the Netherlands, the euthanasia law resulted in a relatively transparent practice," Bregje Onwuteaka-Philipsen, lead researcher, wrote in the study. "Although translating these results to other countries is not straightforward, they can inform the debate on legalization of assisted dying in other countries."

Dr. Bernard Lo, director of the program in medical ethics at the University of California, San Francisco, said in an accompanying editorial that more in-depth research needs to be conducted in order to better understand the ethical concerns that come with doctor-assisted suicide.

"How do physicians think through these difficult cases? What key ethical or clinical concepts are uncertain, misunderstood or might need modification? How do doctors talk with patients and families about these cases, and are there missed opportunities to improve such discussions?" Lo said. "By answering these questions, physicians can improve the quality of care for dying patients and their families irrespective of their views on euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide."

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