On April 1, 2002—April Fool’s Day—the Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalize euthanasia. Euthanasia: the termination of a terminally sick individual’s life, for reasons of mercy, an answer to suffering. The Dutch law stated that patients must be adults, must have made a voluntary request and must be facing unbearable suffering with no reasonable alternative. There were 1,815 reported deaths by euthanasia the following year.
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At first, unbearable suffering was the only acceptable reason to allow euthanasia, but definitions changed as the Royal Dutch Medical Association’s guidelines for interpreting the 2002 Euthanasia Act became the protocol to follow. The definition of “unbearable suffering” came to include “unbearable suffering of either a physical or mental nature.” Then “mental and psychosocial ailments” such as “loss of function, loneliness and loss of autonomy.” More recently, the guidelines have allowed doctors to connect a patient’s lack of “social skills, financial resources and a social network” to “unbearable and lasting suffering,” opening up the possibility of legally assisted death based on “psychosocial” factors alone.
I never dreamed that these laws would affect my life, and I am a pretty good dreamer. Maybe I should have seen it coming.
There is a saying in the Netherlands: God schiep de aarde, de Hollanders schiepen Holland. “God made the earth, the Dutch made Holland.” It is not far from the truth. Living in a land that lies low against an ominous sea and has limited geographical space—the Netherlands is 164 miles by 197 miles at its widest and longest points—the Dutch have mastered the art of reclaiming land. Today 27 percent of the Netherlands lies below sea level.
My husband, Johan, was born in that tiny, pragmatic land. The first time he came to the United States he was twenty-five years old. He’s a typical blue-eyed blond, a Dutchman to the core, with a cleanly, frugal outlook on life.
We spent the first ten years of our marriage globe-trotting, teaching subsistence farming and agricultural techniques in Africa and Indonesia. During those years, we visited the Netherlands sporadically. After our first two children were born, our visits became more frequent.
My father-in-law, Izaak, was a sixteen-year-old schoolboy when World War II broke out in the Netherlands. He hid behind stacks of wood in his neighbor’s attic when the German soldiers marched through his town conducting sweeping raids called razzias, searching houses, looking for any and all able-bodied Dutch males to kidnap and send to work in the factories.
Izaak hid, listening to the sounds of boots in the street, the knock on the door, the tramp of boots up the stairs, wondering if he’d survive. It [End Page 150] was not idle worry. In the October 1, 1944, razzia conducted throughout the town of Putten, 660 men were deported to Germany. Of these, only 48 would live to see the end of the war and return home.
When we visited the Netherlands, Izaak talked about a lot of things. He didn’t talk about the war.
When our daughter Kristina was three and our son Joren just over one, I taught them a game to play with Opa Izaak that didn’t require many words: Button, Button, Who’s got the Button?
“Close your eyes and I’ll hide the button,” I said, putting the button in Opa’s pocket.
“Open your eyes now!” I called. “Who has the button? Where did it go?”
Kristina looked around the room. “Papa!” she said. Johan shook his head no.
Then she pointed to me, and I shook my head.
Finally, when she knew that Opa had it, she squealed and searched his suit pockets till she found the button.
“Again!” Kristina shouted.
“Ggiin,” Joren joined in.
A couple of years later, when Kristina was five and Joren four, we lived in the Netherlands for six months. Opa had a closet full of suit jackets (in all the years I knew him, I never once saw...