It was with regret that I chose to overlook a blog post on the Netherlands by Caroline Simons. In an effort to accommodate those with a conscientious objection to performing euthanasia, travelling doctors fill the gap. This desire to respect the beliefs of those with a religious or other objection to helping others end their lives with dignity put Caroline Simons in mind of mobile death squads.
But I go on too long. Do enjoy Graeme's article.
I've been following Geoff for a while having seen his word cloud on Stephen Law's blogsite (whom I admire as a philosopher). I really like the demographic analysis of the clouds and as I have read his articles, I am impressed with his courteous manner and insight. Consequently, I have been following what the main protagonists have been saying in the Irish debate of abortion laws. I don't want to stick my oar in there to be honest. It's a matter for the Irish people and as Geoff has highlighted, religious lobbying seems to be taking place from within America in order to affect the outcome of the debate. I wouldn't want to be part of that.
But my interest lead to me wondering who Caroline Simons was and what was all the fuss about some video in which she denied appearing. I "Googled" her and found her blogsite. I was immediately impressed with a quote placed on the homepage:
‘The law doth punish man or womanI like that a lot. In the current climate of banking scandals, one can appreciate the sentiments in this delightful ditty.
That steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater felon loose
That steals the common from the goose.‘
I navigated to the page "About Caroline" but found nothing at all saying what she does or stands for. I did notice in the Google results that she is a solicitor. (That impressed me. I began to think that here was someone who knew the importance of fairness, honesty and representation). Her FAQ page was also bereft of information. So I clicked on the Blog title and scanned the article headings that appeared. Quickly, the title "‘Quietus’ in Holland - Mobile Death Squads" caught my eye. The reason for this is the fact that I live and work for some time now, in the Netherlands (I am British (English)). Mobile Death Squads? In the Netherlands? My word! I was astonished. The title itself conjured up images of jack-booted, leather-clad thugs marching around and drowning the elderly in buckets of water. I didn't know what Quietus was nor was I at all aware of what Mobile Death Squads had to do with the Netherlands. Did it perhaps relate to the occupation years of 1940 - 45?
So, with some trepidation and lurid interest, I began to read the article.
I was utterly shocked. The writer PD James had apparently written an horrific tale - Quietus - set in the future where an overseer (the deacon - sounds religious to me) was up to his neck ritually murdering the aged by drowning them in the sea. And now, there were signs that the Dutch were following this path. That's right. The Dutch were on their way to murdering aged citizens for some, perhaps Malthusian, reasons. And presumably, the population, currently represented by over 10 political parties ranging from the Christian Democrats, Christian Union, Staat Reformed Party (a party whose manifesto is to bring the "norms and values of the bible" into law and who currently have three seats in the second house) to the VVD (centre-right), PVV (right and raving) - were along the way to being duped into appointing a deacon of some sort who was going to govern with the aid of death squads. Presumably, he would be able to resolve the political issues that surround the ageing demographic (but save his own skin as he himself grew older!) by bumping off the grey-haired citizens - whether they liked it or not. At least these were the thoughts spooling through my mind.
So what was this "death squad"? How on earth could such a thing ever begin to exist in a country that consists of people whose history revolves around cross-(non)religious cooperation imposed upon them by the need to deal as one and compromise with each other against the threat of the seas, a place in Europe that has harboured political and religious refugees for centuries and who prides itself on tolerance and who had been under the heel of an oppressive occupation force which sent thousands and thousands of its citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike, to their deaths? I quickly made the discovery that Caroline Simons is referring to the Dutch Association for a Voluntary End to Life (NVVE). This organisation is now proposing that for those people who wish to end their lives under the 2002 euthanasia law (Caroline Simons reports it as the 2001 law when it was ratified. It came into effect in April of 2002) and whose doctor is not prepared to perform the act of euthanasia (Caroline Simons calls this "killing" - she calls it as she sees it - but I can't help being shocked by this choice of words), might be performed by medical staff who operate by coming to the patient who has requested that their life ends.
I defy anyone to justify the labelling of such medical staff as "death squads" any more than we would call ambulance teams "Mobile Health Einsatzgruppen". Why couldn't we call these people "Compassionate Suffering Alleviation Helpers"? It should be pointed out, that voluntary euthanasia in the Netherlands is highly controlled and the numbers of those whose lives end by their own choice is very low - less than three percent. More on that later.
Perhaps we should refer to Caroline Simons and her associates as "Interminable misery and agony Squads" due to their desires to prevent people from choosing to end their lives when, wracked in pain and misery, they feel they no longer have any quality to it and there is no chance of any improvement. This would, after all, reflect her choice of words and position. Perhaps it would sound better if we used words like "einsatzgruppen" when we describe those who are doing their level best to prevent people from choosing a respectful, dignified, painless and pain-relieving death when life has no more quality. Yes, that sounds good doesn't it? The "Interminable misery and agony einsatzgruppen" represented by Caroline Simons. I shall not mention jackboots.
I have to say now, that by the time I had read what Simons had written about the NVVE and had checked up what the fuss was, I was appalled. I know that solicitors have a responsibility in representing their clients as best they can but would, say, a court of law really be so uncritical as to not see through this kind of scaremongering and misrepresentation?
I couldn't stop myself from reading further. But I found it difficult to see any congruent thread in the article and unfortunately, the article isn't replete with references backing up the inference of death squads so it's very difficult to check where Simons is getting her information and data from. It has one reference to a work of fiction. (I must admit to harbouring the suspicion that Simons' morals and ethics surrounding euthanasia may well be based upon another, somewhat older work of fiction, but let's not dwell on that). There is a reference to the NVVE (where we immediately find that the choice of words "death squads" is outrageous and hysterical hyperbole), there is a reference to a paper by the Dutch Physicians Association which aims to set out where Dutch doctors of this association stand with the euthanasia law that is now ten years in effect.
There is a quotation of Lord Alton who claims that 25% of the 4000 annual euthanasia deaths in the Netherlands are without patient consent. There is no reference from where this information that Lord Alton quotes, is gathered. An article on Lord Altons' blogsite seems to be a good candidate as it explicitly states what Simons reports but the article post-dates (21st June 2012) Simons' article (3rd January 2012) so it's not clear. I went on some fact checking. An article in the Lancet seems to offer a different assessment:
"In 2010, of all deaths in the Netherlands, 2·8% (95% CI 2·5—3·2; 475 of 6861) were the result of euthanasia. This rate is higher than the 1·7% (1·5—1·8; 294 of 9965) in 2005, but comparable with those in 2001 and 1995. Distribution of sex, age, and diagnosis was stable between 1990 and 2010. In 2010, 77% (3136 of 4050) of all cases of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide were reported to a review committee (80% [1933 of 2425] in 2005). Ending of life without an explicit patient request in 2010 occurred less often (0·2%; 95% CI 0·1—0·3; 13 of 6861) than in 2005, 2001, 1995, and 1990 (0·8%; 0·6—1·1; 45 of 5197). Continuous deep sedation until death occurred more frequently in 2010 (12·3% [11·6—13·1; 789 of 6861]) than in 2005 (8·2% [7·8—8·6; 521 of 9965]). Of all deaths in 2010, 0·4% (0·3—0·6; 18 of 6861) were the result of the patient's decision to stop eating and drinking to end life; in half of these cases the patient had made a euthanasia request that was not granted."So, in 2010, there were 475 acts of euthanasia (of which, 13 were without explicit patient request) and 789 cases where people died in coma due to persistent sedation. Is this an example of the 1,000 cases that Lord Alton reports?
On the Dutch statistics site "Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek" - a government site - you can find all the statistics relating to euthanasia deaths. It also reports in English.
Simons makes the claim that "Dutch doctors kill scores of babies after birth each year and justify this infanticide on the inherently discriminatory basis that they can decide that a life is of such low quality that it ought not be lived". Reading this, one would think that doctors in the Netherlands have some sort of callous attitude to life and death. "I'm sorry Mrs. Klomp. But I have decided that the quality of life your baby might enjoy, just isn't good enough. I'm going to kill it." The reality will be vastly different. I don't know much about medicine but it's not too hard to conceive of a conception that has just gone badly wrong for some reason and that the baby is not going to survive for long and will be in terrible pain. Will a doctor be able to advise the parents to consider euthanasia? Will he be looking forward to it with callous abandon while he laughs at the tears of the parents? Simons would seemingly have us think so.
Readers may have heard of the consternation in the Netherlands during the last presidential election when some know-nothing by the name of Rick Santorum made claims about the state of euthanasia in the Netherlands. He was soundly thrashed in the rational media for it. See this article from the Washington Post which provides a different picture to the one that may have arisen in your mind after reading Simons' article. It also deals with her claim about scared elderly who carry cards that demand they not be euthanised. For heavens sake!
I am horrified that people who operate in the public arena and are trained and educated in professions that are supposedly worthy of respect are using the language and word choice that is found in this article to essentially further their aims by scaremongering. It cannot be that they expect these articles to go unchallenged nor that their dissemblance will not be used against them.
What then, is a good description of euthanasia in the Netherlands? Probably something like "balanced, democratic country doing its best to deal with the inevitability of death by allowing those who choose to die because life is unbearable, to do so in a dignified, safe and painless way whilst not forcing those who do not wish to euthanise people". Is there a slippery slope? Is there a shred of truth in the article by Simons that we will one day be bumping off the oldies in the sea?
Back in the real world, the data seems to suggest not.