Frances Norwood Lectures on Dutch End of Life Policies


On Monday, Feb. 24, at 5p.m., Dr. Frances Norwood of George Washington University delivered a speech in Cole Cinema. The lecture covered a wide spectrum of observations and conclusions based on her ethnographic fieldwork in the Netherlands, where she interviewed and observed doctors and their patients about euthanasia, including their views about it.

A medical anthropologist and recipient of the Margaret Mead Award in 2012, Dr. Norwood was born in North Carolina and after receiving her undergraduate degree in Industrial Relations at University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), she later went on to attain her Masters in anthropology at American University. She also got a joint Ph.D. from University of California- Berkeley and San Francisco.

Medical anthropology is the study of culture and humans through their health and well being. This being said, there are many possible research topics in the field. For Dr. Norwood, the connection between culture and nature relates to their end of life policies in ways one would not expect.

Before actually sharing her findings, Norwood went over the Dutch history with water. For hundreds of years, people in the Netherlands have been building dikes and polders to keep the North Sea from encroaching on their sparse land. They did this through creating mounds of earth, usually kept dry by a windmill constantly pumping the water out. This connection with controlling water translated into a huge project started in 1953, called the Delta Works Project, that protects the Netherlands from being flooded by raising and lowering the water levels through 400 miles of dikes. In Dr. Norwood’s words, the Dutch have a connection from wanting to control water to controlling death. Junior Sam Newman thought, “What was most interesting in the talk were the floods and how the Dutch control the water around them.” What does this have to do with their end of life policies? Norwood elaborated on their legal policies for euthanasia and how their view of nature shapes their view of death as well.

The Dutch have had euthanasia legalized since 1984 and in 2012 it was further legalized by statute. Of course there are rules as to how and when euthanasia can be used. It is used for someone who chooses to end their life because their suffering/pain is too unbearable or they have an incurable disease that has become too much.

There are five stages to a euthanasia request and all are including allowing the whole Dutch family to talk together about it and allow the individual who is thinking about it to be able to change their minds or get a better understanding of the process. The stages include an initial request, written request, second opinion, date set, and, finally, euthanasia death. This process takes weeks to months and most requests do not make it out of the first to third stages for various reasons.

As junior Sabrina Parker put it, “The talk was interesting because I did not know about euthanasia. It is good to know there are good uses for it since cultures use it in different ways.”

After sharing some of the data she collected on doctors’ feelings toward euthanasia, Dr. Norwood posited that the current push for the legalization of euthanasia occurred as a “response to over-medicalization” and that the Dutch are trying to bring nature back into the end of life.

Though her fieldwork was based in the Netherlands, Norwood works in the healthcare industry in the United States and so expounded on the possibility of euthanasia legalization in the U.S. According to the medical anthropologist, 45 percent of all people in the U.S. die in the hospital instead of at home. This can be seen as over-medicalization in that people are subjected to a lot of pain through the things that keep them alive, rather than just living at home for their last few moments. Culturally, Norwood said, “The U.S. is distrustful of authority and uses a very individualistic mentality,” and so euthanasia would not be a viable choice here unless changes were instituted in the health business. One should have better choices to pick from outside of either a sub-par nursing home or euthanasia. However, Norwood did also state that health industries are moving slowly toward more community-based treatment (especially for older people) and less hospital-based, so as to help the patient.

Senior Yna Davis had this to say about the talk, “She is so articulate. She is explaining concepts I knew nothing about in a super informative and thought provoking way – it makes me want to learn more. This is definitely one of the coolest talks I have been to.”