The Law: Implications of Mercy

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"My mother was very ill," explained Mrs. Geertruida Postma. "A breast had been removed, she had had a cerebral hemorrhage, she was partly paralyzed, could hardly speak, had pneumonia and was deaf. Again and again she had told me and my husband, 'I want to leave this life. Please help me.' She had tried to commit suicide but she didn't succeed." Then one day in November 1971, Mrs. Postma visited the old-age home and found her mother propped in a chair, tied to the arms, because a male nurse had decided she needed to spend time out of bed. "When I watched my mother, a human wreck, hanging in that chair, I couldn't stand it any more. So I shouted in her ear, 'It's all right, Mother! I will take care of you.' The next day I gave her the fatal shot."

The shot was a heart-stopping 200 mg. of morphine injected directly into a vein. Both Mrs. Postma and her husband are doctors in The Netherlands, and she knew exactly how to give the injection. The matter could have ended there; at 79, the old lady might well have died without arousing any suspicion. But Dr. Postma, who has a reputation as a woman of principle, went to the director of the old-age home, explained what had happened and asked him to sign the death certificate. Instead, he called the police. When they failed to act against the popular doctor, he called Gerard Nubé, the public prosecutor in the provincial capital of Leeuwarden. Reluctantly Nubé charged Dr. Postma with mercy killing, which carried a penalty of up to twelve years.

Other doctors in the province quickly signed an open letter to The Netherlands Minister of Justice stating that each had committed the same crime at least once. Two thousand persons from the Postmas' town of Noordwolde signed a statement supporting euthanasia. An 82-year-old man in an Amsterdam old-age home announced the formation of a foundation for voluntary euthanasia; one week later the foundation had 3,000 members. The Minister of Justice took to television to debate the question. He conceded that there is no legal problem with the widespread practice of so-called passive euthanasia —the withholding of medicines and other life supports in hopeless cases. But active euthanasia such as Dr. Postma's? He could not envision the "legal possibility. Where would that lead?"

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