The Victorian Parliament will consider a bill to legalise euthanasia in the second half of 2017. That follows the South Australian Parliament’s decision to knock back a voluntary euthanasia bill late last year, and the issue has also cropped up in the run-up to the March 11 Western Australian election.
With the issue back in the headlines, federal Labor’s justice spokesperson, Clare O'Neil, told Q&A that in countries where the practice is legal, “very, very small” numbers of people use the laws.
Whether or not you agree with O'Neil’s statement depends largely on your interpretation of the subjective term “very, very small”, but there is a growing body of data available on how many people are using euthanasia or assisted dying laws in places such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Colombia, Canada and some US states.
Assisted dying, assisted suicide and euthanasia
Many people use the terms “assisted dying”, “assisted suicide” and “euthanasia” interchangeably. But, technically, these phrases can have different meanings.
Assisted dying (sometimes also assisted death) is where the patient himself or herself ultimately takes the medication. Euthanasia, by contrast, is usually where the doctor administers the medication to the patient.
Assisted suicide includes people who are not terminally ill, but who are being helped to commit suicide, whereas assisted dying refers to people who are already dying. Some reports do not, however, distinguish between assisted dying and assisted suicide, and I will not distinguish them here.
In some jurisdictions, the word “euthanasia” is used to refer to both assisted dying/suicide (where the patient himself or herself takes the medication) and to euthanasia (where the doctor administers the medication to the patient). So “euthanasia” can sometimes be used as a broad term to cover a range of actions.
Euthanasia and assisted suicide rates around the world
According to a peer-reviewed paper published last year in the respected journal JAMA:
Between 0.3% to 4.6% of all deaths are reported as euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide in jurisdictions where they are legal. The frequency of these deaths increased after legalization … Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are increasingly being legalized, remain relatively rare, and primarily involve patients with cancer. Existing data do not indicate widespread abuse of these practices.
The authors of that paper said that 35,598 people died in Oregon in 2015. Of these deaths, 132, or 0.39%, were reported as physician-assisted suicides. The same paper said that in Washington in 2015 there were 166 reported cases of physician-assisted suicide (equating to 0.32% of all deaths in Washington in that year).
Interestingly, the same paper noted that US data show that:
pain is not the main motivation for PAS (physician-assisted suicide)… The dominant motives are loss of autonomy and dignity and being less able to enjoy life’s activities.
The authors said that in officially reported Belgian cases, pain was the reason for euthanasia in about half of cases. Loss of dignity is mentioned as a reason for 61% of cases in the Netherlands and 52% in Belgium.
A 2016 Victorian parliamentary report has quoted from the UK Commission on Assisted Dying, which in turn referenced the work of John Griffiths, Heleen Weyers and Maurice Adams in their book Euthanasia and Law in Europe. The commission said:
There are no official data in Switzerland on the numbers of assisted suicides that take place each year, as the rate of assisted suicide is not collected centrally. Griffiths et al observe that there are approximately 62,000 deaths in Switzerland each year and academic studies suggest that between 0.3% and 0.4% of these are assisted suicides. This figure increases to 0.5% of all deaths if suicide tourism is included (assisted suicides that involve non‑Swiss nationals).
Around 3.7% of deaths in the Netherlands in 2015 were due to euthanasia. The Netherlands’ regional euthanasia review committees reported that there were 5,516 deaths due to euthanasia in 2015. That is out of a total of around 147,000 - 148,000 deaths in the Netherlands that year.
This figure represents an increase of 4% of deaths due to euthanasia compared to 2014.
A 2012 paper published in The Lancet reported on the results of nationwide surveys on euthanasia in the Netherlands in 1995, 2001, 2005 and 2010. The researchers said:
In 2002, the euthanasia act came into effect in the Netherlands, which was followed by a slight decrease in the euthanasia frequency … In 2010, of all deaths in the Netherlands, 2.8% were the result of euthanasia. This rate is higher than the 1.7% in 2005, but comparable with those in 2001 and 1995.
Another Netherlands-based study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine reported in 2015 that:
Certainly, not all requests are granted; studies conducted between 1990 and 2011 report rates of granting requests between 32% and 45%.
A 2015 paper in the New England Journal of Medicine about euthanasia rates in the Flanders region of Belgium (the northern half of the country) noted:
The rate of euthanasia increased significantly between 2007 and 2013, from 1.9% to 4.6% of deaths.
Filling in the bigger picture
It can be hard to put these rates in context, but what is clear is that euthanasia is by no means a leading cause of death in countries where it is legal. For example, Statistics Belgium said that for the year 2012, cardiovascular disease was the most common cause of death (28.8%), and cancer was the second most common cause of death (26%).
And in the Netherlands – where 5,516 of deaths were due to euthanasia in 2015 – more than 12,000 Dutch people died from the effects of dementia in 2014, approximately 10,000 Dutch people died from lung cancer and nearly 9,000 died from a heart attack. In 2013, 30% (about 42,000) of Dutch deaths were from cancer and 27% (about 38,000) of Dutch deaths were from cardiovascular disease.
Andrew McGee does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
Authors: Andrew McGee, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology