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Keywords:

  • culture;
  • euthanasia;
  • legal change;
  • social control;
  • the Netherlands

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Dutch process of legal change regarding euthanasia
  5. The social and cultural sources of the regulation of euthanasia
  6. The legalisation of euthanasia: a shift in social control
  7. From sociology of law to sociology of bioethics
  8. References

The debate over the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia is most often seen to be the result of three changes in society: individualisation, diminished taboos concerning death and changes in the balance of power in medicine. The fact that these changes occurred in many western countries but led to legalisation in only a few makes this claim problematic. I examine whether socio-legal propositions, with respect to the emergence of laws which focus on social control, offer a better approach to understanding the development of rules allowing and governing euthanasia. After a short sketch of the history of the Dutch law regulating euthanasia, I discuss these three societal changes in the light of shifts in the social control of medical behaviour that shortens life. I show that the Dutch relaxation of the prohibition of euthanasia goes together with new forms of social control: doctors’ self control is complemented with second-party control (by patients), professional third-party control and governmental control. My work calls attention to the fact that bioethics is part of larger systems of social control.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Dutch process of legal change regarding euthanasia
  5. The social and cultural sources of the regulation of euthanasia
  6. The legalisation of euthanasia: a shift in social control
  7. From sociology of law to sociology of bioethics
  8. References

In 2001 the Dutch Parliament gave legislative ratification to the long-standing practice of legal euthanasia1. The Law on Termination of Life on Request (Review Procedure) stipulates that the behaviour penalised in Articles 293 and 294 of the Criminal Code2– killing on request and assistance with suicide – is not punishable if committed by a doctor who has complied with two conditions. The first condition is that the doctor must act in accordance with the ‘requirements of careful practice’ set forth in Article 2 of the law. The requirements state: 1) the doctor must be convinced that the patient had made a voluntary and well considered request; 2) the doctor must be convinced that the patient's suffering is hopeless and unbearable; 3) the doctor must have informed the patient about the situation; 4) both doctor and patient must be convinced that there is no reasonable alternative solution to the situation; 5) the doctor must have consulted at least one other independent doctor; and 6) the ending of life must be carried out with due medical care. The second condition is that the doctor must report the behaviour to the coroner in accordance with a form that is specified in Article 7 of the Law on the Disposal of Corpses. The report is then sent to an ‘assessment committee’, which judges whether the doctor has fulfilled the requirements of careful practice. Should the committee conclude that the doctor had satisfied all the requirements, he or she will not be punishable. If the assessment committee finds that the doctor had been ‘not careful’, the file is sent to the prosecutorial authorities and the Medical Inspectorate3.

Ethicists, healthcare workers and members of advocacy groups have watched closely the way the Dutch have approached the practice of euthanasia. In spite of extensive documentation of the process of legal change that resulted in the ratification of the Law on Termination of Life on Request (Otlowski 1997, Griffiths, Bood and Weyers 1998, Kennedy 2002, Weyers 2004) no one has offered a convincing explanation for why euthanasia was legally permitted in the Netherlands (Weyers 2002). Analysis of this topic – the social and cultural sources of ethical ideas and practices – is central to a bioethics that seeks to ground its moral insights in sociological reality, but can we social scientists deliver such an analysis? As Babbie (1986) noted, sociology is the ‘most difficult science’: given the huge number of variables involved in the creation of this law it is impossible to provide a complete explanation of its evolution and adoption. However, the contrast provided by the uniqueness of the Dutch approach makes it possible to identify critical features that led the Dutch to create and implement the Law on Termination of Life on Request.

My analysis of events in the Netherlands begins in the sociology of law. It is surprising that social scientific studies of bioethics have only rarely called on ideas drawn from the sociology of law. From Marx, Durkheim and Weber on through to contemporary scholars, sociological studies of legal systems offer theoretical approaches that can be tested with, if not directly applied to, developments in bioethics. My starting place is with two contemporary, and opposed, theories of the emergence of law. The first theory, proposed by, among others, Richard Schwartz (1954) and Donald Black (1976), states that law varies inversely with other forms of social control. According to Black (1976: 107), there is more law, defined as ‘governmental social control’, when other forms of social control are weak. The second theory, developed by Philip Selznick, claims that law emerges in social systems with strong social control. Selznick believes that social systems with strong social control are characterised by informal norms and vague litigation procedures. This situation creates pressure for the formalisation of norms in order to protect vulnerable persons. Law, then, liberates from a regime of strong unofficial norms, of great social pressure, of too much arbitrariness (Selznick 1968: 52).

Both theories pay close attention to social control. Social control includes ‘all those social processes and methods through which society ensures that its members conform to expectations’ (Cohen 1985: 2–3), or in the words of Lon Fuller (paraphrased by Griffiths 2006): ‘Social control is the enterprise of subjecting human behaviour to the governance of rules’. There are several different agents of social control (Ellickson 1991: 131): first-party controllers (i.e. self-control), second-party controllers (e.g. friends, family, clients) and third-party controllers (e.g. professional associations, the government). Law and ethics are thereby defined by reference to those who ensure conformity with expectations, and it is a characteristic of law that specifically-appointed experts – police officers, prosecutorial authorities, judges, etc. – are in charge of upholding compliance with rules.

In order to test these two theories (and thereby show the value of the sociology of law for the sociology of bioethics) I review the social and cultural conditions associated with the debate and policy-making on euthanasia in the Netherlands in the second half of the 20th century. But I begin with a description of the background and process of legal change regarding euthanasia in the Netherlands.

The Dutch process of legal change regarding euthanasia

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Dutch process of legal change regarding euthanasia
  5. The social and cultural sources of the regulation of euthanasia
  6. The legalisation of euthanasia: a shift in social control
  7. From sociology of law to sociology of bioethics
  8. References

The Law on Medical Practice, passed in 1865, reserved the practice of medicine for those who had proven to be sufficiently trained by passing a state exam. From that time on, the training of doctors was limited to academic settings and subject to governmental inspection. A Medical Disciplinary Law was enacted in 19284.

The enactment of The Law on Medical Practice began a process of professionalisation of doctors which replaced heterogeneity with organisation, standardisation and the enhancing of expediency. The Medical Association, which in 1850 included only a modest minority of doctors, developed into an extraordinarily strong organisation which unites almost all Dutch doctors. The medical domain expanded rapidly, with an increase in the number of doctors, the number of patients and the number of symptoms per patient (Jaspers 1985: 18).

The doctor-patient relationship was at first a hierarchic, paternalistic one. Most doctors were in solo practice and when they worked together this was almost always with respect to shared material facilities. Formal social control was rare. For a long time the state operated as a ‘night watchman’ acting only when the protection of society was at stake5.

The supervision of doctors’ behaviour in relation to end-of-life decisions fitted (and to a large extent still fits) into this general outline. The Burial Act states that a burial – and after 1955, also a cremation – can only take place after the written permission of a municipal Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages has been given. Such permission is granted if the doctor responsible for treatment files a death certificate expressing the conviction that the patient died from a ‘natural cause’. If, on the other hand, the doctor has doubts concerning the cause of death, filling the form is not allowed. In that case, permission for the disposal of the corpse has to be obtained from the prosecutorial authorities. In this way doctors play a role in the investigation of potential crimes. However, if it is the doctor who has committed the crime, the system tends to fail6.

From small-scale studies done in the early 1980s, we know that in the 1970s Dutch doctors sometimes terminated a life on request. There are, however, no known cases of a doctor who did not fill in the death certificate because he or she believed that medical behaviour had led to a non-natural death. Moreover, no authority ever suggested that this failure to report presented a problem. In 1980 the Prosecutorial Authorities became active, both on the national and the local level. On the local level, some prosecutors tried to encourage doctors to be more open about their life-shortening behaviour; they co-operated with doctors in their jurisdiction in designing reporting and investigation procedures. At a national level, the Committee of Procurators-General decided that every case of euthanasia that came to the attention of a prosecutor must be referred to the Committee for a decision whether or not to prosecute, the objective being to achieve national uniformity in prosecutorial policy. After this policy decision, a small succession of court cases took place. The Supreme Court's decisions that followed clarified the grounds on which euthanasia could be justified and the conditions doctors must fulfil in order to act lawfully. Doctors who complied with what, after 1984, came to be called the ‘requirements of careful practice’, could invoke the so-called justification of necessity which provides that a doctor who, when faced with a conflict of duties – the duty to relieve the suffering of the patient and the duty not to kill – makes a decision that is legitimate according to medical knowledge and current medical ethics, is not guilty of the offence.

At the same time as these court cases were beginning to take place, the Dutch Medical Association took an affirmative position on the legalisation of euthanasia. An important contribution of the Medical Association was the reframing of the requirements of careful practice, developed in case law, into a professional standard. The Medical Association also made clear that Dutch society could trust doctors to make themselves accountable in cases of euthanasia, a position that made it easier for the Supreme Court to hold that euthanasia could be justified (Remmelink 1992).

Until 1994 the rulings of the Supreme Court – allowing termination of life on request to go unpunished if the requirements of careful practice were met – resulted in a political deadlock. Formal ratification of the verdict was unacceptable to the Christian Democrats – the majority party of the coalition governments since early in the 20th century – and a government bill to overrule the Supreme Court's decision was unacceptable to their coalition partners, liberals or social-democrats (Van Hees and Steunenberg 2000).

After the first court cases, both the government and the Medical Association tried to improve the formal social control of euthanasia by means of active attempts to increase the reporting rate. They did so by instigating research dealing with the prevalence of physician assisted dying, by developing a national reporting procedure, by organising a system for consultation and information for doctors contemplating participating in euthanasia, and by setting up regional assessment committees to create a buffer between the reporting doctor and the prosecutorial authorities. Although the formal social control of euthanasia is far from perfect, the reporting rate has risen from ±18 per cent in 1991, to ±41 per cent in 1995, to ±54 per cent in 2002 (Van der Wal et al. 2003)7. This reporting rate makes the Netherlands the country in which governmental social control on physician-assisted death is the most comprehensive in the world.

After two decades of policy interventions – in which public opinion on euthanasia changed from 49 per cent opposition to euthanasia in 1966 to nine per cent in 1991 (Griffiths et al. 1998: 198) – and with a shift in the composition of the governing coalition (the Christian-Democrat party was now excluded), the government ruled in 2001 that euthanasia should be legalised.

To conclude, the Dutch process of legal change with respect to euthanasia is special in four respects. First, prosecuting authorities used the prosecution of doctors to explore the boundaries of the law. Second, judges were receptive to legalisation. Third, the Dutch Medical Association broke ranks with other medical associations by taking a positive view toward euthanasia. And fourth, Dutch political parties kept looking for a common ground a long time before the ‘purple coalition’ government8 ratified the legal practice of euthanasia (Weyers 2005).

The social and cultural sources of the regulation of euthanasia

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Dutch process of legal change regarding euthanasia
  5. The social and cultural sources of the regulation of euthanasia
  6. The legalisation of euthanasia: a shift in social control
  7. From sociology of law to sociology of bioethics
  8. References

This brief history of legal change with regard to euthanasia does not answer the fundamental question about the regulation of the termination of the life in the Netherlands: Why did the Dutch – unlike nearly every other developed nation – choose this approach? In order to understand the Dutch difference as summarised in the four points of the preceding paragraph, we must take a close look at some features of society and culture in the Netherlands, including Dutch views of death, medical technology and individualism, factors which are supposed to have influenced the debate on euthanasia.

The taboo on death

In the second half of the 20th century, taboos regulating several spheres of private life – including birth, sexuality and death – were loosened. Ariès distinguished two parts of the taboo related to death: ‘the big lie’ and ‘the dirty death’ (Ariès 1981). ‘The big lie’ is the idea that the dying patient should not be told about his or her diagnosis and prognosis. Telling the truth about a forthcoming death was seen as cruel and likely to worsen the patient's condition. Furthermore, medical knowledge was so primitive that confident diagnosis and prognosis were difficult. The ‘dirtiness’ refers to seeing death as indecent: death was to be kept out of sight just like many other bodily processes, for example, excretion. The growing importance of cancer as the main cause of death, and thereby the growing frequency of a protracted and painful deathbed, contributed to the ‘dirtiness’ of dying (Sontag 1978). Access to a dying person was restricted to a few intimates and those who were indispensable for the nursing of the patient. After World War II the loneliness of the dying deepened further as dying at home decreased in favour of dying in an institution.

It is widely agreed that in most western countries the taboo on death largely disappeared in the 1960s (Ariès 1981). Wouters (1990) examined the diminishing of the taboo on death in the Netherlands by looking at, among other things, changes in the ways dying persons were treated. Until 1955 his sources did not reveal any interest in emotions; it was only through rituals that emotions were allowed to be expressed. Beginning in the mid-1950s the dominant codes of behaviour allowed for greater directness and openness. This new attitude toward emotions resulted in a far-reaching curiosity about everything connected with death and dying (1990: 229). In this context, new rituals for burial ceremonies were developed and discussions about medical treatment at the end of life began.

Kennedy (2002) argues that the diminishing of the taboos on death (and sex) occurred more rapidly in the Netherlands than in the rest of the Western world. He explains this by pointing to Dutch culture, in which candour is highly valued, and to the important changes which took place in the Netherlands in the 1960s and 1970s. With the advent of internationalisation, increased prosperity and secularisation, the once very traditional Dutch society was thrown into flux. The Dutch saw no reason to hold to ‘old-fashioned’ ideas and convictions which seemed arbitrary and repressive (2002: 28–29).

The disappearance of the taboo on death created an opportunity for patients to play a more active role. The awareness of an approaching death offers the opportunity to think about one's preferences for that moment and about desired and undesired medical treatments. Thus, the weakening of the taboo shifts control of the event prompting a reconsideration of the proper role of caregivers both medical and religious.

Development of medical technology and the Dutch healthcare system

After World War II, medical technology flourished. Antibiotics were increasingly available and techniques for anaesthesia, and thus for surgical treatment, improved considerably. Techniques for resuscitation were also substantially expanded. Moreover, the refined surgical techniques and increased knowledge about the problems of rejection brought organ-transplantation within the doctors’ reach. Medicine appeared to be a domain without limits. In the 1960s, however, feelings of discomfort arose, discomfort which was provoked by medical embarrassments like the thalidomide affair. These affairs showed the need for the regulation and supervision of medicine. As a result, the state began to take a more active role in healthcare. At the same time criticism was heaped on the power medicine had come to exercise in society (in the Netherlands by Van den Berg 1978, among others). Patients were urged to challenge the almost autonomous growth of medical technology and its range of application. This movement also caused doctors to reflect on the limits of their profession.

Part of the response to developments in medical technology was public discussion of medical-ethical questions. The ability of doctors to postpone death, even when recovery was impossible, created questions about when life should be preserved and the permissibility of relieving pain when such relief would hasten death. Caregivers and ethicists also pondered the difference between acting and refraining from action. If abstention is allowed when the result is the patient's death, why should actively ending the life of a patient who suffers unbearably and hopelessly be prohibited? The role of the patient was another contested issue: should the patient participate in decisions concerning prolonging or shortening his or her life?

In the Netherlands, consensus on most of these issues was reached in a relatively short time. Pain relief with a life-shortening side effect was considered permissible if the relief of pain, and not death, was the aim of treatment. Continuation of futile medical treatment came to be seen as a form of maltreatment and, consequently, stopping it became a duty. Today pain relief with a life-shortening side-effect and the cessation of futile medical treatment are considered ‘normal medical practice’–‘behaviour that doctors are generally authorised to perform based on medical indications and according to professional (technical and ethical) norms’ (Griffiths et al. 1998: 91).

Debate over the doctor-patient relationship resulted in a strengthening of the patient's position. In the new Constitution of 1982, an article safeguarding the right to physical integrity was included. Thereafter, informed consent and the right to refuse treatment were elaborated in the Civil Code (Law on Contracts for Medical Treatment).

Characteristics of the Dutch healthcare system – which reflect societal attitudes – can account, to some extent, for the rapid and rather uncomplicated process of change. Traditionally, social politics in the Netherlands has reflected broad support for equity and solidarity in sharing financial burdens. The Netherlands is a well-developed welfare state. In healthcare, the country's cultural commitment to social equity and solidarity translates into a dominant role for income-related payments, and limited use of co-payments. Healthcare insurance companies levy contributions based on income, and offer entitlements according to need. Virtually everyone in the Netherlands is covered by health insurance.

Home care has a prominent position in the Dutch healthcare system and general practitioners (GPs)9 play an important role in the healthcare system. GP care has three major system characteristics: ‘listing’, ‘gatekeeping’ and ‘family orientation’. Listing means that, in principle, every Dutch inhabitant is registered with a GP. Gatekeeping refers to the fact that patients generally do not have direct access to specialists or hospital care but must be referred by their GP. The impact of gatekeeping is reflected in the low referral rate: more than 90 per cent of all complaints are treated by GPs. The third characteristic, family orientation, refers to the fact that a Dutch GP generally serves as the personal physician for a patient's entire family. Moreover, GPs make many home visits: 17 per cent of all contacts are visits to the patient's home (De Melker and Verhey 2002: 69–70).

The Netherlands is further distinguished by rates of death and birth at home. De Vries (2005) points out that birth and death at home fit well with Dutch ideas about medicine and science, and Dutch notions of ‘thriftiness’. In his sociological analysis of the high rate of home birth in the Netherlands, De Vries also notes that ‘The Dutch are disinclined to celebrate the heroic’ (2005: 163–166). With respect to end-of-life decisions this can be illustrated by the frequency of deaths with a GP as the doctor in attendance: 40 per cent of all deaths take place at home or in a residential home. As an explanation of the role of GPs in the healthcare system, De Vries notices that the Dutch view of the ‘family’ is distinctive. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the Dutch were the first among modern nations to experience the ‘nuclearisation’ of the family. In other European countries the nuclearisation of the family occurred simultaneously with industrialisation and was marked by the increasing use of professional help for events once attended by family members: birth, sickness and death. Having nuclearised earlier, the Dutch family resisted the institutionalisation of birth and death (De Vries 2005).

What conclusion can be drawn with respect to changes in the social control of medical practice at the end of life? In the Netherlands as elsewhere, developments in medical technology have provoked a change in the norm regarding the sanctity of life. Although life is still seen as something very important, it has come to be acknowledged that respect for life is not unlimited. In the Netherlands, when discussions emerged concerning who should participate in the decision whether or not to stop treatment, or whether or not to relieve pain with a possible life-shortening effect, it became clear that medical considerations alone could not determine the issue. Opinions about quality of life became part of the discussion. The patient's opinion was, therefore, more important. In this way, self-control based on the personal ethics of the doctor was combined with second-party control. The extent of second-party control in the Netherlands is shown by the high percentage of physicians who report discussions with patients in end-of-life decision-making (Van der Heide et al. 2003). With respect to euthanasia second-party control is a necessary condition – otherwise the termination of life is not an option.

The data of Van der Heide et al. point to another change: the existence of non-governmental third-party control. Third-party control by other doctors and other caregivers is possible if doctors discuss their decision with them. It is not clear whether developments in medical technology caused this change but it seems obvious that more technical complexity goes together with more collegial consultation. The Netherlands is among the countries in which professional discussions on end-of-life decisions occur frequently. Apart from the required consultation with another doctor, which took place in 91 per cent of the cases, doctors also consult nursing personnel frequently: specialists consulted nursing personnel in 78 per cent of the cases of euthanasia and GPs, who normally work without nursing personnel, consulted a nurse in 16 per cent of the cases of euthanasia (Van der Wal et al. 2003).

With respect to ‘normal medical practice’ at the end of life, therefore, we see self-control supplemented by second-party control and informal third-party control, but not with governmental social control. With respect to euthanasia we not only see self-control supplemented by second-party control (by definition) but also officially regulated third-party control. Consultation with an independent colleague is one of the requirements of careful practice, whereas the reporting procedure offers the opportunity for governmental social control.

Individualisation

Individualisation refers to the process by which social relations change from collectivism – a situation in which people are bound to each other and the place they live with strong, multiple ties – to individualism. International comparative research shows that the Netherlands is among those countries in which individual choice – for example with respect to divorce and soft drugs consumption – is widely accepted. This research also shows that in the Netherlands the ‘post-materialistic value-orientation’ is stronger than in most other countries (Inglehart 1997: 139). Preferences fitting into this value-orientation can be seen in the answers Dutch people give to questions regarding ‘self-determination with respect to one's body’ (Elchardus et al. 2000: 154–5): suicide, abortion, homosexuality, ‘euthanasia’ (defined as ‘terminating the life of an incurably sick person’) and divorce. Over the years, the Dutch have always scored high on the acceptance of homosexuality, suicide and ‘euthanasia’.

The consequences of this change for social control, however, are not clear in advance. Is individualisation connected with more or less informal social control? Did individualisation in the Netherlands lead to isolation and less sensitivity to one another's opinions? Whether or not the Dutch look after each other can be ascertained by research on trust and participation. In this research, the hypothesis is that a society of people who trust each other and where many people participate in civil society needs less regulation and less governmental social control (Fukuyama 1995). A comparison of 54 regions in seven European countries – Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom – shows that the Netherlands as a whole scores high on trust and participation (Beugelsdijk and Van Schaik 2003: 128). It can therefore be concluded that, although the Netherlands is an individualistic society, it is not a society of atomistic individualism. Hofstede (1997), who studied cultural differences in business, also sees the Dutch as non-atomistic individualists. In his research the Dutch appear as ‘feminine’ individualists, a combination the Dutch share with Nordic countries. Individualism makes them appreciate personal time, freedom and challenge, and ‘femininity’ makes them value good working relationships and co-operating (1997: 81–82).

How has this non-atomistic individualism influenced the public debate on euthanasia? How is self-determination discussed with respect to the end of life in the Netherlands? In the early years of the debate on medical behaviour that potentially shortens life, the issue of self-determination, or ‘having a say in one's own life’ as it was then called, was hardly ever mentioned. Beneficence was the most often invoked principle for legitimising life-shortening by doctors. In the 1970s consensus grew on a more restricted meaning of the word euthanasia: termination of life on request. At the same time, proponents of euthanasia connected beneficence with self-determination. The conjunction of these two principles is reflected in the ‘requirements of careful practice’, which require both a voluntary, well-considered request and unbearable and hopeless suffering. It is thus not self-determination as such but the combination of the request and the suffering that constitutes the situation in which termination of life is considered justifiable. In 2002 the Supreme Court ruled that only suffering based on a ‘disease’ leads to a doctor having a conflict of duties (Nederlandse Jurisprudentie 2003, no. 167). A consequence of legalisation via the justification of necessity is also that termination of life without a request can be, and sometimes is, considered justifiable. Therefore, although the position of Dutch patients has been strengthened, it is wrong to conclude that the Law on Termination of Life on Request rests only on self-determination10.

The Dutch are seen – correctly, I believe – as people who put a high value on their personal judgement. In the slipstream of the process of individualisation, opinions regarding the sanctity of life have changed. The vast majority of the Dutch think that euthanasia can be legitimate. The legalisation of euthanasia and assistance with suicide, which came into effect in 2002, reflects this belief. Much of the regulation surrounding euthanasia practice, however, seeks to guarantee that the choice for euthanasia and its implementation is not done in isolation by the patient and his or her physician. In 2001, consultation with relatives took place in 96 per cent of the cases of termination of life on request. There is circumstantial evidence that isolated persons hardly ever manage to convince their doctor to perform euthanasia.

The legalisation of euthanasia: a shift in social control

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Dutch process of legal change regarding euthanasia
  5. The social and cultural sources of the regulation of euthanasia
  6. The legalisation of euthanasia: a shift in social control
  7. From sociology of law to sociology of bioethics
  8. References

A common denominator of the disappearance of the taboo on death, developments in medical technology and individualisation, is altered attitudes toward death. The loosening of the prohibition of ending a life in a medical context, however, does not mean that anything goes. Rather, this loosening goes together with new forms of social control. Self-control of doctors is coupled with second-party control, with professional third-party control, and with governmental social control.

Since 1970 the position of the patient with respect to dying has changed: today it is widely believed that a patient ought to be told of his or her impending death and to be given a say in how death will be managed. Patients are no longer totally dependent on their doctors.

Euthanasia, however, is not covered by the Law on Contracts for Medical Treatment. Unlike withholding and withdrawing treatment, ending a life at the patient's request is not seen as ‘normal medical practice’. A doctor, therefore, is never obliged to perform euthanasia. He or she can refuse a patient's request. Nevertheless, asking to die is no longer seen as problematic behaviour (Norwood 2005) and if a patient finds a doctor willing to help them, euthanasia is an option. More generally, legal euthanasia seems to go together with a lower frequency of actively ending life without a request (Kuhse et al. 1997, Deliens et al. 200011) and an increase in the rate of consulting patients regarding all kinds of medical end-of-life decision-making (Van der Heide et al. 2003). Therefore, and somewhat ironically, the patient who is against actively ending life is perhaps in a better position in the Netherlands than in countries in which euthanasia is prohibited.

The euthanasia law has also changed the way doctors relate to each other. The Medical Association played an important role in the debate on euthanasia and complemented that role with protocols and guidelines. Currently, it organises meetings and courses in which doctors can learn about the requirements of careful practice and can talk to each other about the problems they experience in medical end-of-life care. With respect to euthanasia, professional social control is formalised in the required consultation of an independent doctor.

In the Netherlands there is now much more governmental control regarding euthanasia than there was in the past. Before 1980 governmental social control only existed in theory. As in many other countries, prosecutorial authorities never actively looked for doctors who broke the law. Nowadays, although far from perfect, Dutch governmental social control regarding euthanasia is fairly comprehensive. Nowhere else have so many cases concerning ending of life on request been investigated by prosecutorial authorities and so many doctors prosecuted and brought to trial. Active control has continued after the enactment of the law in 2002, and although not perfect, the current reporting procedure produces a level of public control of euthanasia practice that has no comparable example in the rest of the world.

From sociology of law to sociology of bioethics

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Dutch process of legal change regarding euthanasia
  5. The social and cultural sources of the regulation of euthanasia
  6. The legalisation of euthanasia: a shift in social control
  7. From sociology of law to sociology of bioethics
  8. References

My research sheds light on the factors associated with the set of regulations governing euthanasia in the Netherlands. What we have seen is: a well-developed welfare state, social relations characterised by a high level of trust, a country with permissive attitudes regarding ‘self-determination with respect to one's body’, that values candour highly, that has been successful in finding a common ground on which euthanasia is acceptable for almost all inhabitants. These features account for the fact that important organisations – like the Medical Association and the prosecutorial authorities – were willing to contribute to the process of change. In turn, their contribution helped to enlarge formal and informal social control of euthanasia. The Dutch appeared to be unafraid of the prospect of abuse; to welcome openness with respect to end-of-life decision making (Kennedy 2002); to value consensus on such a sensitive issue (Weyers 2004); and to be willing to enlarge social control on medical behaviour at the end of life.

Where does this leave us with respect to the theories of the emergence of law put forward by Black and Selznick? In the case of the law regulating the practice of euthanasia in the Netherlands, it is clear that law does not vary inversely with other forms of social control. Furthermore, although the position of patients is strengthened in many ways, the law on euthanasia did not liberate the patient from a doctor reluctant to perform euthanasia.

Why should a sociologist of bioethics care about these theories of law? My work lifts the gaze of those who work in bioethics by calling attention to the fact that bioethics, and the regulatory regimes associated with it, are part of larger systems of formal and informal social control. A rigorous sociology of bioethics must explore how this relatively new profession and new mode of regulation fits with the rise and fall of other means of controlling the behaviour of professionals and their clients.

Notes
  • 1

    I use the term euthanasia to refer to termination of life on request and physician-assisted suicide.

  • 2

    Article 293: A person who takes the life of another person at that other person's express and earnest request is liable to a term of imprisonment of not more than twelve years or a fine of the fifth category.

  • 3

    Staatsblad van het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden, 2001, no 194.

  • 4

    The former disciplinary law governed by the Dutch Medical Association was thought deficient because not all physicians were members of the organisation and because the most serious sanction was expulsion from the association. Dutch Medical Disciplinary Law changed considerably in the 1990s. The aims of these changes included improvement of patients’ opportunity to complain and increased transparency of disciplinary procedures.

  • 5

    Healthcare institutions in the Netherlands derive historically from the activities of churches, later taken over by private organisations.

  • 6

    See the British case of Harold Shipman, a doctor who probably killed more than a hundred of his patients.

  • 7

    The other cases are reported as a ‘natural death’ and are unknown by authorities, like all the cases of physician-assisted death in other countries.

  • 8

    This was the nickname given to the government that excluded the Christian Democrats.

  • 9

    The Dutch word for GP is ‘huisarts’, literally ‘house doctor’.

  • 10

    The debate, however, did not stop with the enactment of the Law on Termination of Life on Request. Nowadays, the Dutch Euthanasia Society, which for many years worked together with the Medical Association and political parties, is championing the so-called ‘last-will-pill’, which would ensure that a patient has access to assistance in dying. This idea might be a step towards a more individualistic form of self-determination but it can also be considered an attempt to prevent ill-considered and lonesome suicides.

  • 11

    In the research of Van der Heide et al. 2003, Belgium and Denmark have a higher percentage on this subject than Switzerland and the Netherlands; however, Italy and Sweden have a lower percentage.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Dutch process of legal change regarding euthanasia
  5. The social and cultural sources of the regulation of euthanasia
  6. The legalisation of euthanasia: a shift in social control
  7. From sociology of law to sociology of bioethics
  8. References
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