Euthanasia for autism and learning difficulties?

A concerning new study conducted by researchers at Kingston University has revealed that in the Netherlands, a number of people with autism or learning disabilities “chose to die legally through euthanasia and assisted suicide due to feeling unable to cope with the world, changes around them or because they struggled to form friendships”. 

In the Netherlands, euthanasia is available not just for people with terminal illnesses, but also for those experiencing ‘unbearable’ suffering, where there is no prospect of improvement. 

In the period between 2012 and 2021, there were more than 60,000 cases of euthanasia carried out in the Netherlands. Case notes related to 900 of these cases are accessible online. 

The study examined these case notes to find any cases where euthanasia was approved for people with autism spectrum disorder or learning disabilities as the reason for their requests. They found 39 cases involving people with either learning disabilities, or autism spectrum disorder or in some cases, both. Nineteen of these were male and twenty were female. Eighteen of these cases were under the age of 50.

Reasons that people requested euthanasia included “social isolation and loneliness (77%), lack of resilience or coping strategies (56%), lack of flexibility (rigid thinking or difficulty adapting to change) (44%) and oversensitivity to stimuli (26%).”

It concerning that the study:

 “...found a majority, around two-thirds, chose that path solely, or mostly, due to characteristics associated with their condition, such as anxiety, loneliness and not feeling they had a place in society.  In eight of the 39 cases the reasons for the individual's suffering were exclusively related to the learning disability or autism, with people feeling unable to cope with the world, changes around them and a struggle to make friendships and connections”.

The lead researcher of the study, Irene Tuffrey-Wijne, a palliative care specialist at the university, said:

“There’s no doubt in my mind these people were suffering, … [b]ut 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?”

This study provides a glimpse into the slippery slope that inevitably occurs when the prohibition against doctors killing their patients is removed. It is a sad reflection on a society when the best they can offer a person suffering from a learning disability or autism is death. Where is the incentive to provide support, treatment, community, a sense of belonging and hope?