THUS with a kiss I die,’ says Romeo in Act 5 Scene 3 of Romeo and Juliet, before drinking the poison that will end his life.
Yet this tragic Shakespeare play about the star-crossed lovers who can’t bear to be parted has now become a warped form of health care in Holland.
That’s right: couple suicides are happening with the knowledge, assistance and full support of the Dutch state.
In 2018 there were nine such killings in the country. Details were not available on most, but one involved a husband dying of cancer. His wife had MS. She asked to die with him because she was afraid she would be unable to live independently and didn’t want to be cared for by strangers.
Chillingly this phenomenon is not isolated to Holland. There are reports of couple suicides in Belgium and at least one in Canada, but as Parliament debates assisted dying again today, no one is talking about this most recent and worrying phenomenon.
So it seems timely to look at the dangers of ripping up universal protections that prevent terminally ill, sick and disabled people from being treated differently.
In Holland, which has a euthanasia system, the figures are alarming. A total of 6,126 deaths were caused by euthanasia or assisted suicide in 2018 – around four per cent of all deaths. Sixty-seven patients were killed for mental illness. Three children between the ages of 12 and 17 were euthanised. There were seven cases of organ harvesting after euthanasia. And there were 205 cases of deaths for ‘elderly disorders’ i.e. issues such as hearing loss, balance issues, cognitive decline.
The killing of patients with mental health problems included the tragic case of Aurelia Brouwers, a 29-year-old woman who was given permission in 2017 to be euthanised and who ended her life in January 2018. She suffered from a range of mental-health issues – she was not terminally ill or disabled.
Turning to Oregon, for many years the model of an effective system for those championing a change in the law, a majority of those who end their lives do so because they fear becoming a burden on their families, not because of the physical symptoms of their condition.
At the same time safeguards have been eroded and the range of conditions that qualify for the poison increased. I was with a doctor the other day who told me that under Oregon’s criteria, an insulin-dependent diabetic would qualify to have their life ended, because if they refused to take the insulin they would die within six months. Coupled to this are the difficulties in diagnosing with certainty the length of a terminal condition, and how depression interacts with the desire to die. According to the American Psychiatric Association, up to eight in ten of those wanting to hasten their death have depression.
Worryingly we have also seen cases where patients have been denied costly life saving or life-extending treatments yet offered the drugs to end their life. Cases such as Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroup, who were informed that the Oregon Health Plan wouldn’t pay for their chemotherapy, but would pay for assisted suicide. A similar case was seen in California.
This is why we must maintain our current law and reject this latest attempt by the turncoat MP Nick Boles to soften up Parliament for another legislative challenge.
As Lord Sumption brilliantly put it, the current system is the best bulwark against abuse, and ‘the law should continue to criminalise assistance in suicide’ even if in some difficult cases people will break the law.