Assisted suicide and the law

Sir, – I wish to take issue with Prof Gerry Whyte's contention (May 2nd) that the introduction of assisted suicide in other jurisdictions did open the floodgates to abuse – namely an increase in the amount of non-voluntary ending of life.

First, to test the validity of this argument we need empirical data. We need to compare the frequency of non-voluntary life ending acts before and after assisted suicide was allowed in these jurisdictions. However, this empirical data does not exist. Legal-sociologists do not know how many non-voluntary life-ending acts there were in the Netherlands, Belgium or Switzerland before assisted suicide was allowed.

Second, from the limited comparative data we do have since assisted suicide has been allowed, it is not the case that there is “a strikingly high level of” non-voluntary life-ending acts in the Netherlands. The evidence suggests that the Dutch are in line with other European countries that have not “liberalised the law” on assisted suicide. For example, the Dutch rate of such deaths is lower than the Danish rate and only 0.3 per cent (of all deaths) higher than in the UK.

Third, most medical behaviour that shortens life is classified as pain relief or abstention. It is known that a great deal of this takes place without consulting the patient or his representatives. As far as respect for patient autonomy is concerned in such cases, the Netherlands scores consistently higher than countries that prohibit assisted suicide.


In short, closer examination of data from other jurisdictions does not support the argument “that serious risks attend any attempt at liberalising the law on assisted suicide”. – Yours, etc,


Faculty of Law,

University of Groningen,

The Netherlands.