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Doctor on trial in Netherlands for euthanasia of woman who resisted attempt to kill her


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John Burger - published on 08/28/19

The case seeks to clarify what to do with dementia patients

Nursing home administrators put a sedative in the 74-year-old woman’s coffee, and a doctor began administering a lethal drug. The woman then woke up and showed resistance, and her daughter and husband had to hold her down while the process was finished.

In a country where the “right” to assisted suicide and euthanasia has steadily been expanded since 2002, the shock value of such a scene is steadily decreasing.

What makes this particular scene, which took place in 2016, significant is the ambiguity of the elderly woman’s stated desires. And that has led to the trial of the doctor who administered the drugs.

Though the physician is on trial, prosecutors say they are not seeking a prison sentence here. At issue is what to do with dementia patients who have previously stated their wish to die under certain circumstances but later might have second thoughts, according to the Associated Press. The doctor is accused of making insufficient efforts to find out whether the patient still wanted to die.

AP explained:

[The doctor] is charged with breaching the euthanasia law and, if the judge rules the request of the patient was insufficient, that charge could in theory become murder. But the prosecution is not seeking any penal sentence against the doctor and does not question her good faith. Instead, the prosecution centers its case on setting out a better legal framework for the future.

“We think the doctor has not acted carefully enough and thus passed a threshold. But at the same time, we also say that this threshold is not very clear,” said public prosecution spokeswoman Marilyn Fikenscher.

“A crucial question to this case is how long a doctor should continue consulting a patient with dementia, if the patient in an earlier stage already requested euthanasia,” prosecution service spokeswoman Sanna van der Harg told the BBC. “A more intensive discussion with the demented patient” could have taken place before the decision to end her life, she added.

The doctor, now retired, said in court on Monday that she was fulfilling the patient’s written euthanasia request from 2012. By the time she died, the woman suffered from “deep dementia,” the doctor said. She testified that because the patient was not mentally competent, nothing the woman said around the time of her death was enough to invalidate the written statement. She said the patient could no longer fathom the meaning of such concepts as euthanasia and dementia.

But Dutch prosecutors argued that the patient’s written request was unclear and contradictory, AP reported. In 2012, upon learning of the onset of her Alzheimer’s disease, she filed a euthanasia declaration that said she “certainly did not want to be placed in an institution for demented elderly.”

“I want a humane farewell for my loved ones,” the patient wrote. She later added to the declaration that she wanted euthanasia to take place “when I, myself, consider the time ripe.”

The case is expected to be decided within two weeks.

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