Netherlands: Euthanasia reports decline by 15 percent over 4 years

29 April 2003

AMSTERDAM The number of reported incidents of euthanasia has dropped by 15 percent during the past four years, but it is suspected the actual "mercy killing" figure is double the amount of recorded cases.

The five regional commissions responsible for checking to see if doctors comply with the regulations laid out in the euthanasia law received about 1,882 reports last year, about 330 less than the reported cases in 1999, the first year the commissions issued an annual report.

Some 12 doctors have been cited by the commissions in the past four years for not complying with all the regulations, but to date none have received a summons from the public prosecutor.

This year's annual report by the commissions, published on 29 April, is the first since the new euthanasia law came into force on 1 April 2002. The Netherlands was the first country in the world to legalise euthanasia, but the practise was tolerated for many years prior to this.

Under the new law, the specialist commissions rather than the public prosecutor's department decide whether doctors have compiled with the rules. This measure was intended to give doctors more legal certainty.

But many doctors still do not trust the commissions and get annoyed and worried when the commission seeks additional information about specific cases.

The chairperson for the national body encompassing the five commissions, Reina de Valk, believes that this suspicion might distort the official euthanasia figures. De Valk said the actual number of cases might be double the recorded figure.

"Time is needed to win the confidence of doctors," she said.

The Health Ministry is currently examining ways to tackle the number of unreported cases, newspaper De Volkskrant reported.

Meanwhile, the increased attention for prescribing painkillers might also have helped reduce the number of euthanasia cases.

Over the past four years, 12 doctors have been referred to the public prosecutor. Some cases have been investigated, but no cases have come to court as most cases referred to alleged procedural failures, rather than deliberate attempts to flout the law.