Culture & Ethics Icon Culture & Ethics
Medicine Icon Medicine

Why VSED Is Indeed Abetted Suicide


On June 4, news outlets around the world reported that Dutch doctors euthanized a 17-year-old rape victim who suffered from severe PTSD, depression, and anorexia. I discussed that story here.

As reported by Politico Europe, the original story was wrong (leading to a revision from me). Noa Pothoven was not lethally injected. She was allowed — and perhaps helped, if she received palliative care — to starve and dehydrate herself to death. She decided to kill herself after being refused electro-shock therapy (according to Politico reporter Naomi O’Leary) due to her age. In other words, doctors allowed her anorexia to win.

Putting a Name on It

The euthanasia movement has a name for this kind of suicide: VSED for “voluntary stop eating and drinking.” It is pushed as a way to die in circumstances in which euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal, or for those who don’t quality for legal assisted suicide or euthanasia, particularly the elderly. In British Columbia, it is also allowed to be a means of qualifying for lethal injection euthanasia by permitting the suicidal person to become sufficiently debilitated to make his or her homicide legal.

VSED is an aided — or perhaps, better stated, abetted — suicide. I claim this for two reasons:

  1. The suicidal person is not prevented from self-killing. It’s as if one sees a person cutting her wrist and doesn’t take the knife away or try to staunch the arterial bleeding. By refusing to have the VSED victim hospitalized for care — including forced feeding, if necessary — the suicide is abetted by allowing the means and cause of death to proceed without impediment.
  2. VSED usually involves doctors palliating the physical suffering caused by self-starvation and dehydration. That’s a form of facilitation because — depending on whether the patient is rendered unconscious — the patient can’t change her mind or will be less likely to because the physical impact is substantially ameliorated. It is worth noting here that the Politico reporter, who corrected the erroneous earlier stories, reported in a Twitter thread that palliative care was involved in Pothoven’s care as she died.

The Case of Kerrie Woolerton

This case reminds me of the 2006 suicide of Kerrie Woolterton in the U.K. Woolterton swallowed anti-freeze and called an ambulance. But she pinned a note on her blouse saying she didn’t want medical treatment. Instead of pumping her stomach and saving her life as they had done before, the doctors instead stood back and did nothing as she died a slow and painful death.

I guess we are supposed to be relieved that Pothoven wasn’t lethally injected — although I assume some are saying to themselves that such a killing would be more humane, which is the point of VSED — to get people to accept lethal injections instead of rejecting facilitated deaths.

But forgive me if I don’t breathe a sigh of relief. There are other ways to abandon despairing patients than lethally injecting them.

Photo credit: Andrei Lazarev on Unsplash.

Cross-posted at The Corner.