Statement Against Proposed Legislation on Assisted Suicide

Author: Dutch Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference


The Dutch Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference

There is no ‘right’ to euthanasia

In October 1999, the Dutch Bishops' Conference issued a statement in reaction to the proposed legislation concerning the investigation of termination of life on request and assisted suicide, and to the emendation of the Penal Code and the Law on Undertaking— Law concerning the investigation of termination of life and assisted suicide. Here is a translation of their statement, prepared by the Press Officeof the Dutch Bishops' Conference.

In accordance with the agreement among the political parties that led to the formation of the second Kok cabinet, legislation has been introduced in the Lower House of Parliament concerning the investigation of termination of life on request and assisted suicide and concerning the emendation of the Penal Code and the Law on Undertaking Law on the investigation of termination of life on request and assisted suicide.

Looking back on the period in which discussion arose on the legislation contained in the Penal Code concerning euthanasia and assisted suicide, we note that many elements of our society have voiced their opinions. It was a nearly constant theme in the media, especially at moments when the cabinet and the House of Representatives worked on legislation or when developments occurred in jurisprudence. As the senior executive college within the Roman Church in The Netherlands, we have consistently taken a public position regarding these developments, in particular since 1985 in the pastoral letter entitled Lijden en sterven van zieken (The Suffering and Death of the Ill) and in our reaction to the report by the State Commission on Euthanasia issued that same year.

The currently proposed legislation offers us another opportunity to state our position. We base our reaction only on philosophical-ethical principles. We consider it meaningful for society as a whole, and not only for our faith community.

Our reaction is addressed to both houses of Parliament, especially to the Justice and Public Health Commissions. We address our reaction further to the highest responsible leaders, the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Social Services, Health and Sport, to the Prime Minister and to the Council of State.

Standpoint: no legal basis for removal from the Penal Code

The import of the proposal is, according to the Explanatory Memorandum, to regulate "that the doctor who, with due care, performs euthanasia or assists in suicide, and then reports this to the municipal pathologist, will henceforth be exempt from penalty". If these proposals are accepted, it means that a doctor's performing euthanasia and assisting at suicide will become, as the result of the absence of legal penalty, de facto conditionally permissible in The Netherlands. This is the practical result of the proposed legislation. It also means that the decision on whether or not a criminal investigation will take place will no longer lie, in all situations, in the hands of the Public Prosecutor.

If the proposals are accepted and become law, we can speak of a certain "legalizing" of euthanasia and assisted suicide. If the developments from 1985 to today can be described as a limiting of penal intervention in individual cases while maintaining the principle that euthanasia and assisted suicide are not permissible, now euthanasia and assisted suicide will be put, under certain circumstances, outside the framework of criminal responsibility, and will thus be "legalized". In this sense, we consider this proposal a break with past legislation. We deem this break unacceptable.


In the proposed legislation, the primary concern is what legal reaction is suitable to the problem of human suffering, deterioration and dependence. More precisely, whether this problem, however serious, may be solved via a legal exemption from prosecution. In our view, this law is not correct, whether it is based on personal autonomy, on the right to self-determination, with as argument showing mercy to others, or on anything else. The reason for this is that the termination of life on request by themembers of a particular professional class, in this case, medical personnel, becomes legally exempt from punishment. This legal exemption from punishment contradicts the principle that human life must be protected, a principle that has always been determinative in our society. When it concerns human social order, or the relationship of one person to another, our society has always believed that the freedom of one person ceases when he seeks to deprive another person of life, or to put it differently, that no one has the power of determination over life and death. The proposed legislation threatens this protection of human life, of the life of members of society with regard to one another. This remains fundamentally so, even when it involves a request for euthanasia or assistance in suicide. We disregard here the question of whether any person is really capable of making such a request in true freedom from all external pressure. In all cases it involves a direct and intended termination of life, a lethal intervention by one person in the life of another.

In the proposals, the legislator is self-contradictory when speaking of the fundamental protection of human life, There is simply no question of a "right" to euthanasia. It should never become possible to prosecute doctors for "refusing to perform an acceptable medicalaction". For the same reason, specific cases of euthanasia and assisted suicide should as a matter of course remain directly subject to judgement by the Public Prosecutor. This same standpoint can be heard in medical circles: the unrestricted possibility of being prosecuted compels doctors to reflect critically on what they do in the light of fundamental values, such as the principle that human life must be protected.

The cases of written instructions and minors

General practitioners and others have voiced serious reservations to the proposal regarding written instructions.

Here too we maintain that the protection of human life may not be abridged. In principle, the presence or absence of written instructions does not effect the value of protecting the life of a specific person who at a given moment is unable to express his/herwill. True, at some prior point this person put his/her desire in writing, but the present situation is that of a doctor treating a patient in a particular mental or physical state, and for this doctor the duty to protect this specific human life is the norm against which all must be measured.

There has also been considerable protest against the proposed regulation concerning minors aged 12 to 16. We limit ourselves here to two comments. The authority minors have to make decisions is, correctly, legally restricted in many matters. That matters such as refusing (continued) treatment are put on the same level with direct action to terminate life illustrates, for us, the insufficient differentiation in thinking that marks the proposals and, more generally, the whole euthanasia debate.

The proposal's results for society

Our standpoint is first and foremost based on principles. In addition to this we point out the various results that we believe could be encouraged by the government's proposed legislation. One significant factor here is the sanctioning effect and ethical influence that civil legislation has on public morality in Dutch society: "It's the law, so it's permitted".

— More elements in our society will come to accept euthanasia as normal .

— Respect for human life will deteriorate further.

— Doctors will come under increasing social pressure to cooperate in euthanasia and assisted suicide, as if it were part of their responsibility as doctor and were part of their normal professional activity. It also undermines confidence in the doctor and in the medical profession.

— There is a reduction in the emotional basis of support for helping the terminally ill to cope with their suffering and for reducing and sharing it.

— A climate can arise in the immediate surroundings of the terminally ill in which they can feel obliged to spare others the burden of providing them with long-term intensive care.

— It would be absurd if the removal of the prohibition barrier should, in time, lead to situations in which terminal patients, their families and their doctors felt they must justify their decision against euthanasia or assisted suicide.

Plea: abandon this course

We call upon all responsible politicians and members of governmental bodies to abandon this course of action.

We hope that their efforts will be directed toward creating a climate that promotes an increasing awareness of the meaning of self-determination in matters of life and death within the context of the respect and protection that people owe one another. This involves an attitude that makes room for decline and dependency in human life. An attitude marked by interaction in suffering and death in which people understand one another's needs and call for help, including the need to die with dignity.

As we have said repeatedly and extensively, euthanasia as a directly intended termination of life on request differs in principle from the choice against "artificially" extending life. In the latter case, people are not prevented from dying when that moment is unavoidably close. Euthanasia also differs fundamentally from actions intended to reduce pain, even when these indirectly and unintentionally hasten death.

Dying with human dignity especially requires good "palliative and-hospice care". The development of these deserves high priority in government policy.

Utrecht, October 1999.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
13 December 2000, page 10

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