Activists calling for the decriminalization of assisted suicide in the Netherlands took the Dutch government to court Monday, arguing that its ban on helping a person end their life breaches human rights.
The case at The Hague District Court is the latest legal battle in a long-running debate around end-of-life issues in the country that in 2002 became the first in the world to pass a law that decriminalized euthanasia.
A group called Cooperative Last Will asked the court to declare that the Dutch state is “acting unlawfully by denying its citizens the right to die with dignity under their own control.”
Its chairman, Jos van Wijk, said he wants the Netherlands to again take a leading role in legislation that governs people’s lives.
“The Netherlands has been a trailblazer when it comes to abortion, when it comes to same-sex marriage and when it comes to euthanasia legislation. And now we are once again a trailblazer with regard to your own control over the end of life,” he said.
Euthanasia involves doctors — under strict conditions — actively killing patients with an injection of drugs. In assisted dying, patients are provided with a lethal substance that they take themselves.
Cooperative Last Will, which says it has nearly 30,000 members, wants the case to force a change in the Dutch law to decriminalize assistance for people who want to take their own life at a time of their choosing and for a lethal substance to be made available under strict conditions.
The Dutch government argues that many people who want to end their lives can make use of the existing euthanasia law.
“However, the state is not obliged — and that is what this is all about — to facilitate assisted suicide, let alone allow it under all circumstances,” government lawyer Erik Koppe told a three-judge panel.
Lawyers for the cooperative argued that the European Court of Human Rights enshrines a right to die at a time and place of a person’s choosing. The government lawyers disputed that assertion.
“No right to die assisted by a third party or a public authority can be derived from the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, or a right to assisted suicide,” Koppe said.
The court said it would issue a decision on Dec. 14.
Prosecutions for assisted suicide are rare in the Netherlands. The offense carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
Prosecutors last year charged Van Wijk with “participation in a criminal organization whose object is to commit and/or plan the crime of assisted suicide.”
Van Wijk, who denies the charges, told judges Monday that authorities in the Netherlands enforce and uphold the ban to the extent that witnesses and next of kin are “intimidated and criminalized.”
He said the strict enforcement of the ban and the prohibition on making a deadly substance available “are measures that we say should be organized in another way in a civilized society.”
As the hearing ended, one plaintiff, Marion van Gerrevink, told the court that she found the body of her 21-year-old son Rob after he hanged himself in 2010.
“I still suffer daily from the feeling that I abandoned my son. In his last very depressive period, he had to find a way on his own to take his life and he had to take his last step alone,” she said.
It would have been easier for her family to accept Rob’s death “if we could have accompanied our beautiful, dear son and brother on this last journey and that he could leave life behind in a dignified, humane way,” she added.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.