THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) – A Dutch doctor was found not guilty of murder Wednesday for performing euthanasia on an elderly patient with a severe case of Alzheimer’s disease.
The 68-year-old doctor, identified only as Catharina A., was not present in the crowded courtroom while the verdict was read aloud by Marieke Koek, the president of The Hague district court.
It is the first case to be brought against a doctor since the passage of the Termination of Life on Demand Review Act, which legalized euthanasia in the Netherlands in 2002. The case has attracted heavy media attention both in the Netherlands and abroad.
The case centers on a 74-year old woman who was living in the nursing home where the doctor in question worked. Following her diagnosis with the degenerative disease in 2012, the woman had signed an advanced directive, stating that if she was admitted to a nursing home with dementia, she wished to be euthanized.
However, following her admittance, she gave conflicting statements as to whether she wanted the procedure. Nursing home administrators said that the woman sometimes said that she wished to die, but other times said she was not ready.
In consultation with two other doctors and the woman’s family, she died by euthanasia in 2016.
At the trial last month, the woman’s daughter read a statement in which she said, “In my eyes, no offense was committed, but the fulfillment of a very clear and repeatedly expressed wish. The right to escape from this torturous disease must not be denied to anyone. [The doctor] has taken my mother out of the spiritual prison that she strongly opposed.”
The prosecutor in the case does not believe that the doctor acted maliciously, but still felt the decision to perform euthanasia was incorrect in this case.
“Euthanasia is radical and irreversible. This involves serious accountability for the doctor involved,” the prosecutor said in a statement last month.
The legal argument in the case focused on whether the doctor was required to verify the current desire for life or death from the incapacitated patient. The court was of the opinion that the doctor did not need to ascertain if the patient still wished to die since she was beyond understanding the ramifications of euthanasia and she had previously repeatedly stated that she wished to have euthanasia in the event of severe dementia.
Euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands but only under strict conditions. Patients who wish to undergo euthanasia must first meet with their doctor, who will evaluate them. They must be experiencing “unbearable suffering with no prospect of improvement.” A second doctor must confirm that the patient is voluntarily undertaking the procedure and is eligible.
The patient’s death, which can either be the result of the doctor administering a fatal drug or providing the drug to the patient to administer themselves, is then evaluated by a review committee, comprised of a medical doctor, an ethicist and a legal expert.
The case has had a chilling effect on euthanasia in the Netherlands, with an increasing number of doctors refusing to perform the procedure or referring their patients to specialized clinics. Dr. Marianne Dees of Support and Consultation for Euthanasia in the Netherlands said, “The case has caused an enormous emotional turmoil among colleagues. It makes them uncertain and uneasy.”