Dutch cardinal says euthanasia ruling will not bring clarity

CNA 562a51784d58e 76926 1 Cardinal Willem Eijk. | Bohumil Petrik/CNA

A Dutch cardinal said that a recent supreme court ruling permitting the euthanizing of dementia patients creates confusion and raises questions about consent, especially for the most vulnerable at the end of life. 

Speaking on behalf of the Dutch bishops' conference, Cardinal Willem Jacobus Eijk, the archbishop of Utrecht, highlighted renewed concerns about the growing practice in the Netherlands in a statement provided to CNA April 23. 

The cardinal referred to the supreme court decision, delivered Wednesday, which found that doctors could forcibly euthanize dementia patients if they had previously signed a document approving the procedure.

"In 2016, a physician of a nursing home performed euthanasia in a woman who had a written euthanasia declaration, firmed four years before. This itself does raise the question of whether such a written declaration, firmed years ago, still expresses the actual will of the patient," said the cardinal.

The woman, who was unable to communicate due to her condition, had stated four years earlier that she wished to decide when the time was right for her death. The woman resisted the attempt to place the needle in her arm, and was given a sedative in a cup of coffee. She was reportedly held down by family members, and was euthanized. 

Charges were brought against the doctor who administered euthanasia. He was acquitted. The Supreme Court of the Netherlands further found that it was lawful to euthanize someone who cannot consent to the procedure but had previously expressed a desire to be euthanized. 

Eijk said that experts were concerned the legal process left much to be desired in the case. 

"Does the legal proceedings against the physician of the nursing home lead to the clarity desired by the college of attorneys general? Physicians of nursing homes think that that is not the case," he said. 

"Instead of laying down criteria for interpreting the written euthanasia declarations of patients with advanced dementia, the Supreme Court leaves this to the judgement of the physicians involved, by which their uncertainty only grows," he said. 

Physicians may have been cautious to euthanize dementia patients during the court proceedings of the original case, Eijk stated. 

The cardinal pointed to a 7-percent drop in the number of euthanasia cases reported to Dutch authorities in 2018 compared to 2017. The doctor who euthanized the Alzheimer's patient was initially cleared of any wrongdoing in 2019, but the case was further referred to the Supreme Court of the Netherlands in an effort to establish legal precedent.

Eijk said in the statement that those "who consider human life as an intrinsic, and therefore universal value, and is convinced that it may not be terminated by euthanasia, medically-assisted suicide and termination of life without request, would prefer that these actions never take place." 

"However, a drop of 7% could be seen as a relative contribution to the common well-being, the basic principle of Catholic social ethics, of which the legal defense of the right to life is one of the fundamental conditions," he added.

By 2019, the year the court ruled that the doctor did not err in euthanizing a woman with dementia, the number of euthanasia cases had risen by 13%. 

"One may fear that the Supreme Court's judgement, though making physicians perhaps more uncertain in performing euthanasia in patients with advanced dementia, will not lead in general to a decrease of the number of cases of euthanasia and medically-assisted suicide," said Eijk.

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