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AUTISM and mental illness have been used as “justifications” for legally euthanising people in the Netherlands, a new study shows.
The finding, by a research team headed by Kingston University’s Irene Tuffrey-Wijne, raises fears that legal euthanasia is being extended to groups not intended to be covered by the original law.
Ms Tuffrey-Wijne’s group studied documents relating to 900 euthanasia cases released by the Dutch government’s euthanasia review committee.
Of 39 euthanised individuals who were autistic or “intellectually disabled” 30 cited loneliness as a cause of the “unbearable pain” that needs to be demonstrated to get approval for euthanasia, with eight stating that factors linked to their autism or intellectual disability were the only cause of their suffering.
Five of those were under 30, including a man in his twenties who cited childhood bullying and an inability to connect with others as causes of his pain.
“There’s no doubt in my mind these people were suffering,” Ms Tuffrey-Wijne said, “but is society really OK with sending this message, that there’s no other way to help them and it’s just better to be dead?”
Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre’s Simon Baron-Cohen said it was “abhorrent” that people with autism were being euthanised in the Netherlands without being offered further support, while Dutch psychiatrist Dr Bram Sizoo said he was worried that young people with autism saw euthanasia as a solution and that some were “almost excited at the prospect of death … they think this will be the end of their and their family’s problems.”
Between 2012 and 2021, the Netherlands put to death almost 60,000 people at their own request.
Fears over abuses of legal euthanasia to avoid addressing health, economic and social problems have also been raised by disability groups in Canada, where a requirement that death be “reasonably foreseeable” was dropped in 2021.
Disability rights activist Heidi Janz has since charged that Canada’s Medical Assistance in Dying (Maid) programme “has become an acceptable solution to poverty for people with disabilities,” as cases mount of people applying for euthanasia because they cannot afford home adaptations to manage their conditions.
Canadian Association of Maid Providers vice-president Dr Konia Trouton acknowledged this year that some euthanised Canadians had cited socio-economic factors as their main cause of suffering.
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