Recent evaluation of the practice of euthanasia and related medical decisions at the end of life in the Netherlands has shown a slight decrease in the frequency of physician-assisted death since the enactment of the Euthanasia Law in 2002. This paper focuses on the absence of euthanasia cases concerning patients with dementia and a written advance euthanasia directive, despite the fact that the only real innovation of the Euthanasia Law consisted precisely in allowing physicians to act upon such directives. The author discusses two principal reasons for this absence. One relates to the uncertainty about whether patients with advanced dementia truly experience the suffering they formerly feared. There is reason to assume that they don’t, as a consequence of psychological adaptation and progressive unawareness (anosognosia). The second, more fundamental reason touches upon the ethical relevance of shared understanding and reciprocity. The author argues that, next to autonomy and mercifulness, “reciprocity” is a condition sine qua non for euthanasia. The absence thereof in advanced dementia renders euthanasia morally inconceivable, even if there are signs of suffering and notwithstanding the presence of an advance euthanasia directive. This does not mean, however, that advance euthanasia directives of patients with dementia are worthless. They might very well have a role in the earlier stages of certain subtypes of the disease. To illustrate this point the author presents a case in which the advance directive helped to create a window of opportunity for reciprocity and shared decision-making.
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Competing interests: None declared.
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