Empathy and the application of the 'unbearable suffering' criterion in Dutch euthanasia practice

Health Policy. 2012 May;105(2-3):296-302. doi: 10.1016/j.healthpol.2012.01.014. Epub 2012 Mar 13.


A pivotal due care criterion for lawful euthanasia in the Netherlands is that doctors must be convinced that a patient requesting for euthanasia, suffers unbearably. Our study aims to find out how doctors judge if a patient suffers unbearably. How do doctors bridge the gap from 3rd person assessment to 1st person experience? We performed a qualitative interview study among 15 physicians, mainly general practitioners, who participated earlier in a related quantitative survey on the way doctors apply the suffering criterion. Results show that doctors follow different 'cognitive routes' when assessing a patients suffering in the context of a euthanasia request. Sometimes doctors do this imagining how she herself would experience the situation of the patient ('imagine self'). Doctors may also try to adopt the perspective of the patient and imagine what the situation is like for this particular patient ('imagine other'). Besides this we found that the (outcome of the) assessment is influenced by a doctor's private norms, values and emotions considering (the performance of) euthanasia. We conclude by arguing why doctors should be aware of both the 'cognitive route' followed as well as the influence of their own personal norms on the assessment of suffering in the context of euthanasia requests.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Empathy*
  • Euthanasia, Active, Voluntary / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Euthanasia, Active, Voluntary / psychology
  • General Practitioners / psychology
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Informed Consent / psychology
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Netherlands
  • Pain / diagnosis*
  • Pain / psychology