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Field Notes
Alzheimer's Disease and Personhood A look at how the Dutch consider assisted suicide in the context of Alzheimer's.

As in the United States, the Dutch conversation about assisted suicide emerged primarily in the context of cancer. At least in that context, before acceding to a request for assistance in dying, caregivers must be sure that the person has made a voluntary and carefully considered request, and that her suffering is unbearable and without prospect of improvement. The Dutch have recently been trying to use those criteria in the context of Alzheimer’s disease. Given the wave of Alzheimer’s cases poised to crash onto wealthy countries, along with emerging technology to detect the disease process before symptoms appear, we should be grateful to the Dutch for that attempt.

As a newcomer to this discussion, however, I was struck that those criteria may have a somewhat odd result. A patient with Alzheimer’s disease can easily meet the conditions in the early stage of the disease, when one usually has the mental capacity to request assistance in dying and to make the case that one’s existential suffering is unbearable. If one is in the late stage, though, it can be much harder to get such assistance because one does not have that capacity.

As in the United States, the Dutch conversation about assisted suicide emerged primarily in the context of cancer. At least in that context, before acceding to a request for assistance in dying, caregivers must be sure that the person has made a voluntary and carefully considered request, and that her suffering is unbearable and without prospect of improvement. The Dutch have recently been trying to use those criteria in the context of Alzheimer’s disease. Given the wave of Alzheimer’s cases poised to crash onto wealthy countries, along with emerging technology to detect the disease process before symptoms appear, we should be grateful to the Dutch for that attempt.

As a newcomer to this discussion, however, I was struck that those criteria may have a somewhat odd result. A patient with Alzheimer’s disease can easily meet the conditions in the early stage of the disease, when one usually has the mental capacity to request assistance in dying and to make the case that one’s existential suffering is unbearable. If one is in the late stage, though, it can be much harder to get such assistance because one does not have that capacity.

Erik Parens, "Alzheimer's Disease and Personhood," Hastings Center Report 43, no. 1 (2013): inside front cover.