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In Netherlands, where euthanasia is legal, assisted suicide still taboo

Twenty years after their country became the first in the world to let patients end their life under the care of a doctor, Dutch right-to-die activists lost a legal challenge to broaden the law.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — A Dutch court upheld the ban on assisted suicide in The Netherlands on Wednesday, citing the government’s obligation to protect vulnerable people. 

“The right to self-determination does not go so far that there is also a right to obtain assisted suicide,” a panel of three judges from The Hague District Court wrote in a ruling available only in Dutch.

Coöperatie Laatste Wil, a Dutch right-to-die organization whose name translates to Last Wish Cooperation, brought the lawsuit on the basis that the existing law violates the European Convention of Human Rights, a 1953 treaty that protects the political and civil rights of Europeans.

As the court determined Wednesday, however, the country's existing euthanasia framework strikes the right balance between the vulnerable and allowing bodily autonomy. Indeed, the ECHR may protect the right to end one's own life, the judges said, but there is no obligation for countries to facilitate the process. 

Twenty-nine individual plaintiffs joined the Dutch group in bringing the underlying challenge, and several of them testified about the suicides of their loved ones during an October hearing.

"He had to take that last step utterly alone," one of the plaintiffs, Marion van Gerrevink, addressing the court in tears, said of her 22-year-old son who died by suicide in 2010.

He had struggled with depression his entire life and hanged 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. 

While the judges described these stories as “harrowing,” they found that the state has an obligation to prevent anyone from ending their life “on a whim” as much as possible. 

So many people turned up to the hearing in the case that the courtroom was too small to accommodate the crowd. The nonprofit group booked a meeting room in a nearby hotel where it showed a livestream of the proceedings to some 40 of its members. 

“We see that more and more people want to make their own decisions about their end of life,” the group’s spokesperson Frits Spangenberg said in an interview. Spangenberg said they were disappointed in the ruling. 

Lawyers for the government argued the country's euthanasia protocol provides sufficient opportunity for anyone suffering to end their life, and that any changes to the existing law should be left up to politicians and society. Coöperatie Laatste Wil argued public opinion is already on its side, citing polling data showing that some 70% of the Dutch population supports the legalization of assisted suicide.

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.  

Outside of the official process, however, helping someone end their life remains illegal. 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. Another member, Alex Schot, 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.  

Coöperatie Laatste Wil can appeal the ruling within three months but has not yet decided if they will do so.

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