Euthanasia and assisted suicide for people with an intellectual disability and/or autism spectrum disorder: an examination of nine relevant euthanasia cases in the Netherlands (2012-2016)

Irene Tuffrey-Wijne*, Leopold Curfs, Ilora Finlay, Sheila Hollins

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

19 Citations (Web of Science)


Background: Euthanasia and assisted suicide (EAS) have been legally possible in the Netherlands since 2001, provided that statutory due care criteria are met, including: (a) voluntary and well-considered request; (b) unbearable suffering without prospect of improvement; (c) informing the patient; (d) lack of a reasonable alternative; (e) independent second physician's opinion. 'Unbearable suffering' must have a medical basis, either somatic or psychiatric, but there is no requirement of limited life expectancy. All EAS cases must be reported and are scrutinised by regional review committees (RTE). The purpose of this study was to investigate whether any particular difficulties arise when the EAS due care criteria are applied to patients with an intellectual disability and/or autism spectrum disorder. Methods: The 416 case summaries available on the RTE website (2012-2016) were searched for intellectual disability (6) and autism spectrum disorder (3). Direct content analysis was used on these nine cases. Results: Assessment of decisional capacity was mentioned in eight cases, but few details given; in two cases, there had been uncertainty or disagreement about capacity. Two patients had progressive somatic conditions. For most, suffering was due to an inability to cope with changing circumstances or increasing dependency; in several cases, suffering was described in terms of characteristics of living with an autism spectrum disorder, rather than an acquired medical condition. Some physicians struggled to understand the patient's perspective. Treatment refusal was a common theme, leading physicians to conclude that EAS was the only remaining option. There was a lack of detail on social circumstances and how patients were informed about their prognosis. Conclusions: Autonomy and decisional capacity are highly complex for patients with intellectual disabilities and difficult to assess; capacity tests in these cases did not appear sufficiently stringent. Assessment of suffering is particularly difficult for patients who have experienced life-long disability. The sometimes brief time frames and limited number of physician-patient meetings may not be sufficient to make a decision as serious as EAS. The Dutch EAS due care criteria are not easily applied to people with intellectual disabilities and/or autism spectrum disorder, and do not appear to act as adequate safeguards.
Original languageEnglish
Article number17
Number of pages21
JournalBMC Medical Ethics
Publication statusPublished - 5 Mar 2018


  • Euthanasia
  • Physician-assisted suicide
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Legislation
  • Decision-making capacity
  • Netherlands
  • LIFE

Cite this