The percentage of deaths caused by assisted suicide or euthanasia remained about the same in the Netherlands after the country made the practices legal, researchers found.
About 3 percent of all deaths in 2010 were the result of either euthanasia, in which a physician administers lethal drugs at a dying patient’s request, or assisted suicide, where a person ends his life with medication prescribed by a doctor, Dutch researchers wrote today in The Lancet medical journal. That compares with 2.8 percent in 2001, the year before euthanasia became legal.
The findings may reassure people who have no opposition to euthanasia or assisted suicide, though they may have little effect on the global debate about permitting seriously ill patients to choose when and how they die, said Bernard Lo, president of the New York-based Greenwall Foundation, which funds programs teaching ethics.
“Countries differ greatly in demography, culture and organization of medical care,” Lo, who is also director of the medical ethics program at the University of California, San Francisco, wrote in a comment accompanying the study. More in- depth information is needed to better understand how patients and physicians reach their decisions, he said.
The study’s authors took a sample of data from Statistics Netherlands to identify deaths that might have been the result of either assisted suicide or euthanasia. The researchers from VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam, Erasmus MC University Medical Center in Rotterdam and University Medical Center in Utrecht then sent questionnaires to doctors. The responses provided an estimate of how many people died at their own request.
The frequency of doctors ending a life without an explicit patient request decreased to 0.2 percent of all deaths in 2010 from 0.7 percent in 2001, the study showed.
The study was funded by the Netherlands Organization for Research and Development.
In addition to the Netherlands, assisted suicide is legal in Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and three U.S. states. Euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.
Doctors in the U.K. should drop their opposition to helping terminally ill patients who want to end their lives, the editor of the British Medical Journal wrote last month. The British Medical Association, which publishes the BMJ and represents two- thirds of practicing doctors, rejected that appeal at its annual meeting, with some members saying that killing patients isn’t justified for any reason.
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