Doctors Are Euthanizing People With Autism And Intellectual Disabilities In The Netherlands

Reportedly, 40 people with autism or an intellectual disability were euthanized between 2012 and 2021.

By Gina Florio3 min read
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Since its inception in 2002, the Dutch euthanasia law has been the subject of intense debate, undergoing numerous reviews and sparking myriad ethical questions. Recently, a troubling trend has emerged, with doctors in the Netherlands euthanizing patients with autism or intellectual disabilities who deem their afflictions insurmountable barriers to a normal life. A study by Kingston University revealed that nearly 40 people identifying as autistic or intellectually disabled were legally euthanized between 2012 and 2021.

Doctors Are Euthanizing People with Autism and Intellectual Disabilities in the Netherlands

Euthanasia is a delicate issue, inherently bound to profound questions about the sanctity of life, human dignity, and personal autonomy. However, the recent statistics raise further concerns about how the law is applied, particularly with vulnerable demographics such as those with autism.

According to the study, five individuals under 30 years of age cited autism as a significant or sole reason for their decision to end their lives. Such instances provoke questions about the original intention of the euthanasia law, which initially focused on individuals suffering from terminal illnesses like cancer, and whether its scope has expanded too far.

Belgian ethicist and public health professor Kasper Raus asserts that the profile of patients seeking physician-assisted suicide has dramatically shifted over the past two decades. The original debate spotlighting cancer patients seems to have evolved to include individuals with autism, raising questions about the nature and extent of suffering deemed "unbearable" and incurable. These conditions form the basis for eligibility for euthanasia, but the ultimate decision lies in the hands of the physicians, adding another layer of complexity to this debate.

Kingston University researchers meticulously examined 900 out of the approximately 60,000 euthanasia cases documented by the Dutch government’s euthanasia review committee within a decade. They found that 39 of these cases involved patients with autism or an intellectual disability, 18 of whom were under 50 years of age. For many of these individuals, reasons for euthanasia spanned from physical ailments to unbearable loneliness, with eight specifically citing their intellectual disabilities as the sole cause of their suffering.

This trend of euthanizing autistic individuals raises serious ethical concerns. Irene Tuffrey-Wijne, a palliative care specialist and one of the study's authors, voices the dilemma: “There’s no doubt in my mind these people were suffering. But is society really OK with sending this message, that there’s no other way to help them and it’s just better to be dead?”

Such sentiment echoes in the words of Dutch psychiatrist Dr. Bram Sizoo, who finds the apparent eagerness towards death among these patients profoundly disturbing. The study also reveals that in a third of the cases, there was deemed to be "no prospect of improvement" for people with autism and intellectual disabilities.

However, Simon Baron-Cohen, director of Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre, poses a critical point. He argues that individuals with such disabilities may not fully comprehend the weight of their decision to end their lives, calling it “abhorrent” that they were not offered more support and instead euthanized.

Canada’s Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) program has also stirred debates due to its newly updated eligibility criteria. As of March 17, 2023, individuals suffering from mental illness can also opt in for this assisted suicide. This has added to the existing controversies, primarily because one doesn't need to have a fatal or terminal condition to be eligible for MAID, thus broadening the definition of a "grievous and irremediable medical condition."

Recently, the program has come into the limelight in an unusual context. Canadian fashion retailer La Maison Simons launched a YouTube video that essentially romanticizes assisted suicide. The video depicts the life of a woman named Jennyfer, poised to end her life through MAID. The visuals portray serene and aesthetic scenes, filled with familial love, friendship, and the quest for beauty. The backdrop of Jennyfer's voiceover narrating her views on life, beauty, and death enhances the emotive potency of the video.

The company's intention, as stated by Peter Simons, the previous CEO, was not commercial promotion but rather to use their platform to foster human connection. They viewed the endeavor as a corporate responsibility to contribute positively to the community. Simons hoped the video would encourage viewers to find beauty even in challenging life circumstances.

However, the advertising campaign received mixed reactions, with many perceiving it as distastefully glamorizing suicide. Critics argue that it could potentially have detrimental effects on individuals dealing with suicidal ideation. The fears arise from the potential misinterpretation of the ad as endorsing suicide as an escape, thereby exacerbating mental health struggles among vulnerable individuals.

This case highlights the complex ethical landscape at the intersection of assisted dying, mental health, and advertising. It underscores the need for sensitive and responsible communication around topics as delicate as assisted dying, especially when targeting a wide and diverse audience.

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