NETHERLANDS: Murder case complicates Dutch euthanasia bill.
By Karen Iley
AMSTERDAM, March 16 (Reuters) – The Netherlands’ controversial bill to legalise mercy killing has claimed its first victim in the very profession it was designed to protect.
An Amsterdam court has found a doctor guilty of murder for overstepping stringent euthanasia criteria in a ruling that could hinder the bill’s progress into law when it goes before the upper house of parliament in April.
The case of general practitioner Wilfred van Oijen, who hurried along the death of a patient with only hours to live, has
highlighted the thin and fuzzy line between what constitutes euthanasia and what is simply medical treatment in the final
stage of life.
“I’m sure the Van Oijen case will raise questions around the debate. In that way, it couldn’t have come at a worse time,” said Rob Jonquiere, managing director of the Dutch Voluntary Euthanasia Society (DVES).
“Our concern is that at the last moment, too many members of the Senate will reconsider their decisions – not on the basis of being against euthanasia or against the law – but by asking themselves if things are moving too fast,” he said.
Last November, the Dutch lower house approved a bill to allow euthanasia , legalising a practice tolerated for more than 20 years. Before the Van Oijen ruling, the bill’s passage through the upper house Senate had been viewed as a simple rubber-stamp procedure.
“People will think further about the issue because the case is an example of the absence of a request to die, but has nevertheless been ruled as an act of euthanasia ,” said Yvonne Timmerman, spokeswoman for the Christian Democratic Party (CDA), which, with 20 seats, is the largest party in the 75-seat Senate.
The CDA and a handful of smaller Christian groupings were the only parties to object to the bill in the lower house. Their opposition in the Senate will not be enough to scupper the law.
If passed, the Netherlands will be the first country formally to allow mercy killing. Australia’s Northern Territory legalised medically-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients in 1996, but the law was later repealed.
Van Ooijen was formally found guilty of killing an 84-year-old woman in February 1997 after her daughters had pleaded with him to release their seriously ill and comatose mother from her suffering.
The woman, his patient for 17 years, had heart and vascular problems and brittle bone disease. She had been bed-ridden for months, according to Joop Seegers, Van Oijen’s lawyer.
Rotting skin on her hip was open to the bone, causing an unbearable stench. Blood leaked from her vertebrae and pus oozed out of large skin infections.
Seegers said the woman’s daughters begged Van Oojen to “do something,” asking him: “Would you leave your dog like this?”
Van Oijen gave the woman a muscle-relaxing drug commonly used in euthanasia . She stopped breathing shortly afterwards.
EUTHANASIA OR NOT?
The court ruled that because of his choice of drug, the patient’s death was due to euthanasia , and not, as stated on the death certificate, natural causes.
But Van Oijen’s defence was that he was administering treatment in the final stages before death, not performing euthanasia , and therefore he did not have to follow the rules laid down in the mercy killing bill.
Indeed, Van Oijen had failed to follow some basic euthanasia principles – which was precisely why he was prosecuted. He had not discussed euthanasia with the patient, the patient had not requested it, and no second doctor had been consulted.
The court ruled he had made an “error of judgement” and found him guilty of murder. But it said he had done what he thought best for his patient and therefore imposed no prison sentence.
Van Oijen has announced his intention to appeal.
“This was not a case of euthanasia . It was treatment in the last stage of death. The patient never asked for her death in so many words, but she gave enough signals that she didn’t want to suffer any more,” Seegers told Reuters.
“This is one of these cases where doctors end someone’s life without a specific request,” he said. “But you can hardly speak about life in this case. Nothing was functioning anymore.”
Van Oijen was no murderer, said the DVES’s Jonquiere. His actions were good medical practice.
“The doctor was confronted with a patient who was dying at that moment. What he did was to make that dying more humane… It’s a very thin line and very subtle difference, but there is a difference,” he said.
Latest figures from the DVES, considered the most reliable because they include deaths not reported to the coroner, show there were 3,600 deaths from euthanasia or assisted suicide in 1995. Jonquiere expects this to rise to around 4,000 cases in 1999 when the DVES publishes revised figures.