THE DEBATE about voluntary euthanasia has been reopened in the Netherlands after a Catholic priest in the little parish of Liempde, north of Eindhoven, refused to conduct the funeral service of an elderly man who chose to die by assisted suicide.
The Dutch parliament legalised euthanasia in 2002, making Holland the first country in the world to do so.
The Supreme Court had ruled the practice acceptable in 1984. Doctors were theoretically still open to prosecution until the law was changed 18 years later.
In Liempde, Fr Norbert van der Sluis said he was not willing to conduct the funeral Mass for his unnamed parishioner, who is believed to have been seriously ill.
This is the first time a Dutch priest has openly adopted this stance, which has already divided his parish and the Netherlands itself.
Almost 3,000 people a year choose to end their lives by strictly regulated, physician-assisted euthanasia in the country.
“When it comes to euthanasia, my answer has to be no,” said Fr van der Sluis, who argued guidelines issued by the Dutch bishops stated unequivocally that anyone who opted for euthanasia was not entitled to a church funeral.
Nor was he willing, he told the dead man’s family, to arrange for a colleague to conduct the service.
“As a matter of conscience I cannot allow a fellow priest to say the funeral Mass in my church.”
The degree to which voluntary euthanasia in extreme circumstances has become an accepted part of Dutch life is illustrated by the fact there has already been an angry backlash to the priest’s stance from local parishioners – including his church council.
So concerned are they about the effect on public opinion of the refusal of a funeral that they have demanded he apologise to the dead man’s family.
In the meantime they have halted a fundraising campaign for the repair of the church organ.
The family said they have arranged to have the funeral service held in another parish.
Euthanasia was legalised in the Netherlands by the Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide (Review Procedures) Act 2002, and since then demand has risen significantly – from 1,886 cases in 2004 to 2,600 in 2009, the last year for which statistics are available.
“Deeply ingrained tolerance means that the wishes of others are taken very seriously,” said Evert van Leeuwen, professor of medical ethics at Nijmegen University.