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Dutch right-to-die activists urge court to overturn ban on assisted suicide

In 2001, the Netherlands became the first country to let patients end their life under the care of a doctor. But aiding someone in euthanasia outside the legal protocol remains a crime.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Together with 29 plaintiffs, a Dutch right-to-die organization told judges in The Hague on Monday that the country’s law against assisted suicide causes undue suffering. 

Coöperatie Laatste Wil, or Last Wish Cooperation, wants to force the Dutch state to decriminalize assisted suicide, but authorities told The Hague District Court that the existing euthanasia framework strikes the right balance between protecting citizens and bodily autonomy. 

The courtroom in The Hague was too small to accommodate the crowd gathered to hear arguments. The nonprofit group booked a meeting room in a nearby hotel where it showed a live stream of the proceedings to some 40 of its members. 

The organization argues the existing law violates the European Convention of Human Rights, a 1953 treaty that protects the political and civil rights of Europeans. Several members of the group, including their chairperson Jos van Wijk, have faced criminal charges for providing information about suicide or medications to end one’s life. 

“This case is about your own life and about your own death,” lawyer Martyn Schellekens told the three-judge panel. He’s one of several lawyers representing Coöperatie Laatste Wil in their strategic litigation. 

Towards the end of the hearing, one of the plaintiffs, Marion van Gerrevink, tearfully addressed the court.

"He had to take that last step utterly alone," she said of her 22-year-old son who died by suicide in 2010. He had struggled with depression his entire life and hung himself in the family home. Van Gerrevink believes he could have had a more dignified end if helping him end his life wasn’t criminalized. 

The Netherlands legalized euthanasia in 2001, becoming the first country in the world to do so. People over the age of 12 experiencing "hopeless and unbearable" suffering can request assistance from a doctor to end their lives. The doctor must consult with an independent physician and ensure the patient meets the legal criteria for euthanasia before administering life-ending drugs. 

Lawyers for the government argued the current euthanasia protocol provides sufficient opportunity for anyone suffering to end their life.

“There is a balance between the obligation to protect people’s lives and the obligation to allow people bodily autonomy,” lawyer Wemmeke Wisman said on behalf of the Dutch state. 

Wisman and her legal team argued any changes to the existing law should be left up to politicians and society. She pointed to the 30-year discussion in the Netherlands between the so-called Postma case, in which a court outlined criteria for when a doctor is not required to keep a patient alive, and the legalization of euthanasia. 

In 1971, Dutch general practitioner Truus Postma was charged with committing voluntarily euthanasia, setting off a nationwide debate about the practice. Postma gave her 78-year-old terminally mother, who had repeatedly asked to die, a lethal dose of morphine. The doctor was ultimately sentenced to one week in jail. 

Coöperatie Laatste Wil argued public opinion is already on its side. During the hearing, the group cited polling data that found some 70% of the Dutch population supports the legalization of assisted suicide. The group has about 29,000 paying members and is paying for the lawsuit via crowdfunding, raising more than 200,000 euros ($194,000) last year. 

This isn’t the first time the right-to-die activists have been in court. Several of them have been charged with assisting suicide or belonging to an illegal organization in the past few years. Alex Schot, a member of the Coöperatie Laatste Wil, is facing criminal charges for selling a so-called suicide powder to hundreds of people. Prosecutors say at least 33 people who bought the substance have died. 

The court said it will announce its verdict on Dec. 14.

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