According to a new study, about 20 percent of Dutch people surveyed support euthanasia for the elderly – even if they are not seriously ill – if they have stated that this is their desire.
In addition, about one in three people think that those who are very old should be permitted to commit suicide by taking a pill if they choose to do so.
The survey was conducted in the Netherlands, which, in 2002, became the first country to legalize the practice as long as certain strict rules are followed. These rules require that the attending physician feel certain that the patient is making a well-considered and voluntary request and that there is no other reasonable alternative other than euthanasia to end their suffering. In addition, at least one other physician who has seen the patient must concur with this opinion in writing. Further, in order to avoid prosecution for wrongdoing, physicians must exercise proper care during the euthanasia procedure itself and report the death in the manner prescribed by law.
In recent years, however, a debate has arisen within the country as to whether it is acceptable for older people who have simply become tired of life to opt to take their own lives. The study authors’ purpose in conducting the survey was to judge how much public support there is for such a policy.
In order to gauge public opinion on the matter, the researchers took a random sampling of Dutch adults between the ages of 18 and 95. The survey, which was conducted in 2009-10, asked people their feelings about euthanasia by using four statements and two vignettes. The vignettes dealt with two different scenarios: one of a healthy older adult who is simply tired of living and the other of a younger person who has a terminal illness.
Out of 1,960 people who took the survey, well over half (57 percent) agreed that euthanasia should be a universal right for all people. A slightly smaller number (53 percent) agreed that all people should have the right to control their own life and death.
One out of every four (26 percent) agreed with the vignette in which a healthy elderly person was to be helped to die at his own request. Also, 19 percent said that they might make use of such a service if it were available.
Twenty-one percent said that they agreed with a statement regarding whether, in their opinion, euthanasia should be allowed for those who are in good health, but have become tired of life. However, just over half (52 percent) of the survey respondents disagreed with this statement. Another 25 percent were neutral on the subject.
About half of all those who took the survey said that that might consider requesting physician-assisted suicide in the event that they had a terminal illness.
When asked whether it would be acceptable for an older person to get access to pills with which to kill themselves, 36 percent said it was. Thirty percent, however, had no opinion in either direction.
The researchers found people’s age and the condition of their health did not impact whether they supported euthanasia for the elderly. However, those who favored it did tend to be well-educated, not religious and more interested in being able to make their own end-of-life choices. They were also less trusting of whether their doctors would follow through with their wishes.
The study authors note that there tends to be more support for euthanasia for the elderly in cases where serious illness is involved, but there is also a “significant minority” who support this option for healthy people who have decided that they are done with living. Because of this, they say, there needs to be a serious debate about the topic.
The study was published online this month in the Journal of Medical Ethics.
By Nancy Schimelpfening
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