Cusp

How it feels to be on the brink of a life passage, from youth to middle age to death.

Tired of Living?

A Dutch law would legalize euthanasia for old people who aren't sick, just tired

A few years ago I was at a grocery store in Delaware, waiting my turn at the fish counter. I was there to buy a big piece of salmon to grill, our go-to dinner when we were hosting people at the beach. Next to me, an elderly woman surveyed the various kinds of fish arrayed along the crushed ice display; I remember noticing tilapia, a fish that had just been introduced a few years earlier and that had apparently already made its way to far-flung Rehoboth. The woman seemed irritated, mumbling to herself. Finally she couldn't take it anymore. "But I've already TASTED all of these," she wailed—a poignant comment coming from deep inside someone who knew the pain of having lived too long.

I don't know, obviously, whether that was the source of this woman's distress, but it spoke to me, and I've thought about it a lot over the years. I thought about it again recently while reading about an effort in the Netherlands to legalize euthanasia for people a lot like her (or the version of her I've concocted in my mind): people over the age of 70 who are "tired of living." That's the intent of the "Completed Life" initiative—and apparently it's not as oddball an idea in Holland as it might be in the US. The group that sponsored the initiative, Out of Free Will, is composed of well-respected professors, former ministers, lawyers, and other professionals. (My fellow Psych Today blogger Ira Rosofsky mentioned this movement in a blog post a few years ago.) To get their proposal debated in parliament in March 2012, the group needed to collect 40,000 signatures in support of the idea; they said they collected 112,500. According to an Associated Press report, the organization's spokeswoman, Marie-Jose Grotenhuis, said the group was "overwhelmed" by the response, "especially because people took it so seriously and reactions were mostly positive." The AP report went on:

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The group proposes training non-doctors to administer a lethal potion to people over the age of 70 who "consider their lives complete" and want to die. The assistants would need to be certified and make sure that patients were not acting on a whim or due to a temporary depression, but from a heartfelt and enduring desire to die. . . .

. . . Many religious groups oppose any form of suicide on principle. The Royal Dutch Medical Association -- which played a key role in supporting the nation's euthanasia law -- says it opposes the assisted suicide idea in part because it believes it would undermine doctors' position in the current euthanasia policy.

Religious groups and medical socieities might oppose the idea, but a surprising number of ordinary citizens seem to support it. In December 2013, physicians at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam reported in the Journal of Medical Ethics that when they surveyed 1,960 Dutch adults—average age 53, a bit higher than the average for the general population, which is 48—and asked if they agreed that "euthanasia should be allowed for persons who are tired of living without having a serious disease," 21 percent said yes. (This was a group with a distinct tendency toward supporting euthanasia: 57 percent said "everybody should have a right to euthanasia," and 53 percent said "every human has the right to determine their own life and death.")

When you think about it, this is all pretty revolutionary: a significant minority of people in a small country in Western Europe believe that old people who are healthy should be allowed to die, and should be helped to die, if they choose death as an alternative to facing the inevitable catastrophes of aging. I might have answered "yes," too—though, to be frank, age 70 strikes me as pretty young for conversations like this—and I wonder why. I guess it's because no matter how hard we fight it, no matter how rosy a glow we try to cast on old age as life's "second act," filled with mellowness and self-discovery and whatever the hell post-menopausal zest is really all about, the truth is, death comes at the end of it, no matter what. There are some people who would rather face the inevitable on their own terms and on their own schedule than sit around waiting to see how it all turns out—especially because, even if they don't know the details of how they'll be getting there, everyone gets there in the end.

Assisted dying legislation in three states in the US currently requires that an individual seeking a doctor's help in dying must be suffering from a terminal illness, confirmed by two separate physicians, with a prognosis of less than six months and no evidence of mental illness. A handful of European countries, including the Netherlands, have a less restrictive view of it, allowing assistance in dying for anyone experiencing "hopeless and unbearable suffering" —not necessarily a terminal illness, but nonetheless a definable and serious one. This new law would go a step further, requiring only that an older person declare that he or she has had enough— and the help to end it would come not from a physician, but from a specially trained lay person.

As a member of Out of Free Will, 63-year-old legal scholar Eugene Sutorius, put it, "I do not want to outlive myself." I wonder if that woman in the Delaware fish market thought she already had.

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?

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