5 Facts About Euthanasia in Europe

By Joe Carter
Feb 20, 2014

In Belgium, a country with a majority of Catholic citizens, the parliament is set to pass a low allowing for euthanasia for minors. Here is what you should know about that legislation and other facts about the practice of euthanasia in Europe.

1. Euthanasia refers to the practice of intentionally ending a life in order to relieve pain and suffering. Euthanasia is generally categorized as voluntary, non-voluntary, or involuntary. Voluntary euthanasia is only legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, although non-voluntary euthanasia is also carried out in those countries. (Euthanasia is technically distinct from physician-assisted suicide, which entails making lethal means available to the patient to be used at a time of the patient’s own choosing.)

2. In the Netherlands, euthanasia is common (responsible for about 2 percent of all deaths annually) and popular. Polls show that 86.5% of Dutch doctors would cooperate in principle with a request for euthanasia, while only 7.9% said they would not cooperate and that one in five Dutch citizens believe euthanasia should be allowed for elderly people who are "tired of living." In 1990, prior to euthanasia being legalized in the Netherlands, the Dutch government investigated what was happening in the shadows of the law. Using the narrow definition of euthanasia as “active termination of life upon the patient’s request,” they found 2,300 instances of euthanasia were carried out during 1990. And while the Royal Dutch Medical Association had established in its Guidelines for Euthanasia that terminating a life without a patient’s request is “juridically a matter of murder or killing and not of euthanasia,” the government found, through interviews with randomly selected physicians and mailed questionnaires, that over 20,000 life-ending actions had been taken in 1990 without the patient’s express consent. These “matters of murder” did not include, as the report notes, the unknown numbers of disabled newborns, children with life-threatening conditions, or psychiatric patients who may have been killed involuntarily but were not included in the survey. 

3. A survey of 405 Dutch doctors published in the Journal of Medical Ethics in 1999 revealed that safeguards established by the Royal Dutch Medical Association to control how and when euthanasia is performed were often ignored. Dr. Henk Jochemsen of the Lindeboom Institute for Medical Ethics and Dr. John Keown of the University of Cambridge found that almost two-thirds of cases of euthanasia and assisted suicide in 1995 were not reported. According to the findings, in 20 percent of cases the patients did not explicitly request to die and in 17 percent of cases other treatments were available. The doctors surveyed claimed that 56 percent of patients wanted to “prevent loss of dignity” while 47 percent wanted to “prevent further suffering.” “The reality is that a clear majority of cases of euthanasia, both with and without request, go unreported and unchecked,” said Drs. Jochemsen and Keown. “Dutch claims of effective regulation ring hollow.”

4. Last week, Belgian lawmakers gave final approval to a measure that would allow euthanasia for incurably ill children enduring insufferable pain. The law would make Belgium the first country to lift all age restrictions on legal, medically induced deaths. Under the measure, euthanasia would be permissible for terminally ill children who are close to death, experiencing “constant and unbearable suffering” and can show a “capacity of discernment,” meaning they can demonstrate they understand the consequences of such a choice.

5. Although technically illegal, a study conducted by the Canadian Medical Association found that non-voluntary euthanasia in Belgium is common. The study discovered that about half of the nearly 500 euthanasia deaths the authors investigated were non-voluntary. Some of the patients were even killed by nurses. Both killing without request and euthanasia by nurse violate Belgian law, but as in the Netherlands, the law is rarely enforced.

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