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Study: 1 in 5 Dutch doctors would help physically healthy people die

(Shutterstock)

The Netherlands made history in 2002 when it became the first country to officially legalize physician-assisted suicide.

Now, new research suggests that Dutch physicians might be willing to take that law even further: one-third of them say they would be okay with assisting the suicide of a patient who had a psychiatric disease, dementia, or had a medical condition that made them "tired of living."

Those results, published late Tuesday in the Journal of Medical Ethics, come from a survey of 1,456 Dutch physicians, who were asked about the various situations in which they would find euthanasia (death from medication administered by a physician) acceptable.

Dutch doctors showed widespread support for legal euthanasia in general: 93 percent thought its legality was a good idea.

Numbers dropped, but still remained significant, when the survey queried them on specific cases, like a patient with early-stage dementia or those who were "tired of living" and had medical grounds for their suffering. One in five doctors said they would consider euthanasia for those who were tired of living without medical grounds for suffering.

dutch doctors chart

(Journal of Medical Ethics)

"While the majority find it conceivable that they would perform euthanasia in patients with cancer or another physical disease, approximately one in three physicians find it conceivable in patients suffering from other causes," the study authors write.

Even before Netherlands' 2002 law passed, the country had informally permitted physician-assisted suicide for decades. The 2002 law, Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide Act, specified that doctors could help a patient terminate his or her life if that patient's suffering was "lasting and unbearable and if the request for help in dying was 'voluntary and well-considered.'"

A 2007 study found that in 2005 1.8 percent of all deaths in the Netherlands were the result of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide (which is different from euthanasia in that the doctor prescribes the fatal medication, but does not administer it). Cancer patients tended to make up the greatest number of Dutch citizens using the new law, that same study found.

netherlands

(New England Journal of Medicine)

More American states have begun to legalize physician-assisted suicide, although euthanasia is still illegal across the country. Since 2008, Montana, New Mexico, Vermont, and Washington state have all either had court decisions, ballot initiatives, or laws passed that made physician aid-in-dying legal.

And in early February, Canada's Supreme Court ruled that physician-assisted suicide ought to be legal nationwide, making the country one of the largest to do so. You can read more about international laws on aid-in-dying here.

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