THE HAGUE, Netherlands — A Dutch court will give its verdict Wednesday on a doctor accused of euthanizing a patient with severe dementia in a landmark case in the country which pioneered the practice.
The unnamed female doctor, the first to go on trial under a 2002 law legalizing euthanasia, allegedly failed to properly consult the 74-year-old who may have changed her mind about dying.
Prosecutors have asked judges not to sentence the now-retired doctor as she had acted with “good intentions”, adding that she had “completely cooperated” with the probe and already faced disciplinary measures.
However, the 68-year-old could still in theory be found guilty of murder.
The 2016 case attracted media attention due to details of how the patient was given a sedative in her coffee but nevertheless had to be restrained by her family as the doctor injected the euthanasia drug.
The verdict will be an important test of the law in the country that was the first in the world to legalize euthanasia, followed shortly afterwards by neighboring Belgium.
Euthanasia can only be carried out under strict conditions set down in Dutch law, including that the patient must have “unbearable and endless suffering” and have requested to die “earnestly and with full conviction”.
The law says doctors may also perform euthanasia if the patient has lapsed into “semi-consciousness just before a scheduled euthanasia” and there are still signs of suffering.
But prosecutors said the accused doctor, who specialized in geriatric care, “did not consult her patient enough” before going through with the process at a care home in The Hague.
‘Restrain the patient’
The elderly woman was diagnosed four years before her death with Alzheimer’s, a disease that gradually robs people of their mental faculties.
She had asked in a written statement to be euthanized rather than being put into a care home for people suffering from dementia, the prosecutors said.
But the woman also added: “I want to be able to decide (when to die) while still in my senses and when I think the time is right,” according to the Dutch Euthanasia Review Committee (RTE), which reviews every case to ensure that guidelines were followed.
Shortly after the patient was eventually taken into care, the doctor judged that she qualified for euthanasia, as requested in her statement. Two independent doctors confirmed the diagnosis.
Prosecutors say the doctor did not consult the woman after she was taken into care whether she still wanted to go through with the euthanasia.
On the day of her death, the elderly woman was unwittingly given a sedative in her coffee before the doctor administered a lethal relaxant in the presence of the patient’s husband and daughter — who approved of the move.
But the woman stood up while the euthanasia drug was being injected, the review board said, adding that “the patient’s family then helped to restrain the patient and the doctor quickly administered the rest”.
“A crucial question to this case is how long a doctor should continue consulting a patient with dementia, if the patient in an earlier stage already requested euthanasia,” prosecution service spokeswoman Sanna van der Harg said.
“The law doesn’t give a clear answer, that’s why we are now asking a judge in this case,” Van der Harg said.
Last year 6,126 people were euthanized in the Netherlands, according to latest RTE figures.