Is it time we talked about euthanasia?

A seriously ill Dutch couple recently decided to die together. That couldn’t happen here

Nic and Trees Elderhorst were 91 years of age when they died by euthanasia in Holland recently. He had suffered a stroke and she had been told she had dementia. According to a report in De Gelderlander, they did not want to live without each other. Neither did either of them want to die alone. They had been married for 65 years.

The case did not spark debate in the Netherlands, where euthanasia is legal. According to the Washington Post, the Dutch Association for a Voluntary End of Life, to which they belonged, has 165,000 members.

I should add that this wasn’t just a matter of deciding they wanted to die together and getting on with it. Each had to meet the criteria for euthanasia which include being able to give full consideration to what they were planning to do, and that their suffering was permanent and intolerable. Had they not both met the criteria, then they could not both have legally been assisted to die together.

Here we have not really had any debate on the issue. People say things to their families like, “If I ever get to be like that, shoot me”, which hardly counts as a debate.


In the 1990s, a GP called Paddy Leahy spoke openly about his provision of euthanasia for people who were in pain with no hope of recovery. Even that did not lead to any substantial public debate. Neither did he face any legal consequences – unless he was prepared to name the people whose lives he had helped to end, an attempt to prosecute would, I suspect, have been pointless. He was also a seasoned old campaigner and a tough opponent – I can remember him fighting for the legalisation of contraception and being entirely unfazed by a howling crowd of opponents at a meeting in the Mansion House.

Health issues

Later, when he told the nation on Vincent Browne's radio programme that he intended to end his own life due to health issues, it all became more of a human interest story than a debate over euthanasia. Although I was in touch with him a good deal for The Irish Times in his final months, I am unsure as to whether he actually ended his own life.

I recall getting a letter at the time from a retired journalist who told me he and his wife had already made the arrangements for euthanasia. Again, I don’t know what happened in the end.

But the idea – and practice – of ending your life because of pain or health issues is nothing new in Ireland. Pain and poor health have been identified as factors in suicide among older people here and abroad.

Intolerable and incurable

I believe in the provision of physician-assisted suicide for people whose suffering is intolerable and incurable. It couldn’t be an option in all such cases though – many, maybe most, of those who are suffering in this way are in no condition to give consideration and assent to their deaths and so could not benefit from euthanasia.

Then there is the matter of whether conditions such as dementia should qualify people for euthanasia, even if consent was given while they were still of sound mind. What if it’s the family and not the person with dementia who is suffering?

The question of consent is a thorny one. Some families would gladly push for euthanasia to get their hands on an inheritance. Others would be torn apart by the idea of a parent seeking to die or of this option being raised with a parent.

The details of a law allowing assisted suicide and permitting hospitals to provide it openly would need careful and probably lengthy debate.

So the option of sharing a last word and a kiss and dying holding hands won’t actually be a realistic one – as it was for the Elderhorsts – for a long time, if ever.

Instead, a death of this kind is likely to be a furtive affair, hidden from authorities and maybe from loved ones until after the last moment.