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Sharp rise in cases of euthanasia in Holland

Euthanasia cases in Holland have risen by a massive 13 per cent in the last year, new figures have revealed.

They have shot up for the second time in two years following a huge 10 per cent rise in 2008.

Last year a total of 2,636 Dutch people were killed by euthanasia, with 80 per cent of cases involving people dying at home after their doctors administered a lethal dose of drugs.

This compares to 2,331 reported deaths by euthanasia in 2008. The previous two years also saw rises in the number of cases, with 2,120 deaths by euthanasia in 2006, 1,923 deaths in 2006.

In 2003, the year after Holland became the first country in the world to legalise the practice since the fall of Nazi Germany, there were 1,815 reported cases.

Euthanasia is usually carried out by administering a strong sedative to put the patient in a coma, followed by a drug to stop breathing and cause death.

To qualify patients must be in unbearable pain and their doctor convinced they are making an informed choice. The opinion of a second doctor is also required.

It has long been suspected that numbers of cases are being under-reported, however, as doctors apply a liberal interpretation of the law.

Dutch medics have been accused of practising euthanasia on demand and sometimes killing people who cannot properly consent.

But Jan Suyver, chairman of the government’s euthanasia monitoring commission, said the rising number of cases came as the taboo once attached to euthanasia began to fade. “It could also be that doctors are more likely to report it,” he told NRC Handesblad, a Dutch newspaper.

Anti-euthanasia groups say, however, that the sharp increase is probably be linked to the collapse of the palliative care system in the Netherlands following the legalisation of euthanasia eight years ago.

Phyllis Bowman of Right to Life said: “I am sure that the increase in numbers of people opting for euthanasia is largely a result of inadequate pain control.”

Alison Davis, the coordinator for No Less Human, a disability rights group, said it was inevitable that cases would soar once the practice was legalised.

“They [doctors] start with what they call ‘strict safeguards’ and then quickly move on to embrace more and more victims,” she said.

“These are often people who doctors think ought to volunteer for euthanasia but they can’t for various reasons.”

Besides euthanasia, in which doctors administer a lethal cocktail of drugs to a patient, Holland also permits assisted suicide, in which the patient takes the drugs themselves, and also the infanticide of new-born disabled infants under the Groningen Protocol.

But such cases are omitted from official euthanasia figures.

Also left out are cases of involuntary euthanasia, in which patients are killed by their doctors “without explicit request and consent”. Researchers in 2005 estimated that this accounts for about 550 deaths in Holland each year.

The rise in cases in 2008 has prompted the Dutch health ministry to launch an inquiry into the working of the 2002 law and it is due to open its investigations by the end of the month.

Many Dutch are growing uneasy about the way in which the law has been applied. Among them is Dr Els Borst, the former health minister and deputy prime minister who guided the law through the Dutch parliament.

Last December she said she regretted that euthanasia was effectively destroying palliative care. Amsterdam, a city with a population of 1.2 million people, is now served by just two tiny hospices.

Evidence of abuses also emerged in Belgium last month when researchers found that nearly half of all nurses involved in euthanasia, which is legal, broke the law by taking part in “terminations [of patients’ lives] without request or consent”.

Dignity in Dying – formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society – insists that assisted suicide could still work in practice.