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Most euthanasia deaths linked to loneliness, says Dutch study

'Doctor-shopping' has effectively led to euthanasia on demand, the study claims (PA)

A majority of people killed by euthanasia in the Netherlands for so-called psychiatric reasons had complained of loneliness, a new study has found.

Researchers in the U.S. found that loneliness, or “social isolation”, was a key motivation behind the euthanasia requests of 37 of 66 cases reviewed, a figure representing 56 per cent of the total.

The study by the National Institute of Health also revealed that the Netherlands was operating a de facto policy of euthanasia on demand, with patients “shopping” for doctors willing to give them a lethal injection for the most trivial of reasons.

Many of them used euthanasia clinics and mobile units willing to over-ride decisions of family doctors who believed that a death wish could not be justified.

The research, led by Dr Scott Kim, cited the case of a woman of good mental and physical health who was killed by lethal injection because she felt lonely following the death of her husband a year earlier.

The killings, which were carried out between 2011 and 2014, were permitted even though a person can qualify for euthanasia under Dutch law only if they are suffering unbearably from an untreatable condition.

The research published in the JAMA Psychiatry journal led to renewed warnings from UK politicians and campaigners that it was not possible to effectively regulate either euthanasia or assisted suicide.

Lord Carlile of Berriew, a Lib Dem peer who is a patron of the Living and Dying Well think-tank, said: “It’s another example of the very poor way in which this scheme is administered in the Netherlands.

“It is shocking really because the Netherlands is a very civilised country and a well-organised country but they are not somehow able to keep a check on those cases of people who are undergoing euthanasia when the reality is that they need more company and better social work.”

Phil Friend, spokesman for Not Dead Yet UK, a disability group, said the practice of killing people because they were lonely showed just how far down the “slippery slope” Holland had descended since it legalised euthanasia in 2002.

“This started with other people feeling they should be able to end other people’s lives because of their suffering and now we have got to the point where we are ending people’s lives just because they are lonely,” he said.

“It seems to me extraordinary,” he continued. “Where does it end? It is a crazy situation. What we should be thinking about is what do we do to help older lonely people? Are we going to euthanise them instead of helping them to find ways to make their lives more interesting, fun and pleasant?”

British politicians also expressed grave concerns over the findings of the study with Fiona Bruce, the Conservative MP for Congleton, saying the study confirmed “why Parliament was right to defeat so overwhelmingly the assisted suicide Bill last year”.

“Time and again evidence from countries where euthanasia has been legalised shows why the arguments against legalising it here in the UK are so powerful,” she said.

“We must not allow vulnerable elderly people to feel pressured into thinking they have little or no value as human beings. That is utterly wrong.

“Loneliness is a big problem today, but the answer is more care and compassionate support for those who feel lonely and isolated – not cold-hearted killing.”

Robert Flello, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent South and a Catholic, said he was “absolutely horrified” by the findings, but added: “Sadly I am not surprised.”

“We are hearing all sorts of horror tales coming out of the Netherlands and other places where they have legalised euthanasia and assisted suicide,” he said. “This is why I am such a passionate campaigner against any measures that will put us on the slippery slope in the UK.

He said: “Whether it’s depression through old age, or illness or being lonely, these are not reasons why people should be being killed.

“It is a very dangerous situation we have got in countries like Holland. I do hope that the government there sees that it has got this wrong and starts to take action to come back from the dreadful place the Dutch have found themselves.”

The study comes just a month after Dutch euthanasia rules were relaxed to give doctors greater freedom to kill dementia sufferers.

New government guidance assures doctors they can legally give lethal injections to patients who are no longer capable of expressing a desire to either live or die.

The patient must, however, have signed an advance directive, or “living will”, requesting euthanasia at a time when they still had mental capacity.

Critics of euthanasia have continually raised alarm about the incremental liberalisation of the law since the Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide Act made the Netherlands the first country in the world to legalise the practice since Nazi Germany.

They include former Dutch euthanasia regulator Dr Theo Boer, who 18 months ago warned Westminster that the practice was now out of control in his country – even though the law was drafted to include robust safeguards, exempting doctors from prosecution only if certain criteria were met.

Liberal interpretation of the law has corresponded with a soaring incremental increase in the number of euthanasia deaths in the Netherlands. In 2014, there were 5,306 recorded deaths by euthanasia. Observers expect the 2015 figure to pass the 6,000 mark.