Euthanasia was legalized in Belgium in 2002. No doubt most Belgians thought of it as a last resort for very exceptional cases. But only a decade later, at least five people a day are being euthanized in a country of only 11 million. The figure for 2013 rose by 27 percent over 2012. Euthanasia is becoming a normal part of life.
What is it like to live in a society where euthanasia is constantly spreading? Consider a few recent developments.
- Paralysed patients with neurological disorders are sometimes euthanized—voluntarily—for their organs. The doctors say that patients see this as a great opportunity for a final act of altruism.
- Patients are requesting euthanasia after their doctors treat them unsuccessfully. In one notorious case last year, a woman became so miserable after a sex-change operation that she asked to be killed. In another, a woman suffering from anorexia was sexually abused by her psychiatrist. She became so disconsolate that she also asked to be killed.
- Couples in their twilight years are requesting joint euthanasia. "We want to go together because we both fear of the future," one elderly husband told a Belgian newspaper in an extended interview. "It's as simple as this: we are afraid of what lies ahead. Fear of being alone and above all, fear of the consequences of loneliness."
- Children were granted the "right" to request euthanasia earlier this year. Can an eight-year-old give informed consent to a lethal injection? Yes, say euthanasia supporters. "This is an act of humanity that allows the doctor to make the most humane course of action for his patient," said the senator who sponsored the legislation.
- And most recently, a man detained indefinitely for rape and murder has been allowed by a Belgian court to undergo euthanasia. Claiming that he is unable to control his violent sexual urges, 50-year-old Frank Van Den Bleeken spoke of his "unbearable psychological anguish." According to the Belgian media, a number of other prisoners have applied for the same "treatment."
Only a few of Belgium's euthanasia deaths make it into the evening news, but these are enough to justify the fear that the most numerous "beneficiaries" of legal euthanasia will be the lonely, abandoned, and vulnerable.
But don't even mention "slippery slopes" to Belgian supporters of euthanasia. They will dismiss you as a troglodyte or a religious fanatic. Opponents, they feel, would have regarded the invention of the wheel as the first step downward on the slippery slope to tumbrels and tank tracks. From their point of view, the expansion of euthanasia represents progress. Slippery slopes are angled downwards; Belgian euthanasia points upwards.
A New Mindset
Clearly, an entirely novel outlook on life has evolved in Belgium among the doctors, politicians, and journalists who support euthanasia—an outlook so different that dialogue has become almost impossible. How else could one explain a recent bizarre decision by Dr. Wim Distelmans, the leading practitioner of euthanasia in Belgium, the leading promoter of euthanasia in Belgium, and—scandalously—the head of the government commission overseeing euthanasia? He recently organized a tour of Auschwitz for a right-to-die group. A Jewish member of the British Parliament described his plans as "obscene." Distelmans—quite sincerely—retorted that he was the victim of "gutter journalism." Go figure.
What characterizes this new mindset? Three things.
- We are the sole masters of our life. No one else's opinions or interests have any relevance. Children need not be consulted if their aged or mentally ill parents want to be euthanized. This viewpoint ignores the plain fact that we are born into a network of relationships, nurtured by it, and sustained by it. In practice, the radical autonomy idealized by euthanasia supporters is ghoulish. Lonely, frightened, and suffering people are offered the option of dying rather than warmth, companionship, and support.
- Life is no better than death. There is a deeply nihilistic streak in the relentless campaign to keep extending the borders of euthanasia. Belgium's law was originally meant for people in a "medically futile condition of constant and unbearable physical or mental suffering that can not be alleviated, resulting from a serious and incurable disorder caused by illness or accident." But nowadays any major difficulty in life can be reframed as unbearable anguish—even loneliness. The assumption is that a patient—even someone who is relatively healthy—will be no worse off if he is dead. This jettisons the wisdom of centuries of Western civilization.
- A planned death is a good death. Again and again the media depicts euthanasia as a healthy option. In the words of one prominent journalist, "The beauty of euthanasia is that you can say goodbye and have a dignified death surrounded by your loved ones, your family or friends, who often have stood by your side for years while you suffered." This is the ultimate result of the "every child a wanted child" mantra which has been used to sanitize abortion. What kind of society will Belgium become if people are expected to plan their deaths? Will the elderly believe that they have a duty to die, as some bioethicists have suggested?
Beneath the Facade
Someday historians will have to explain how an apparently Christian country became so deeply imbued with a pro-death ideology.
Perhaps it began several generations ago, with the depravities of the rule of King Leopold II over the Congo in the late nineteenth century. "Beside Leopold," wrote Mark Twain in 1905, "Nero, Caligula, Attila, Torquemada, Genghis Khan and such killers of men are mere amateurs." Scholars have estimated that under Leopold—who turned the whole of the Congo into his personal property in order to plunder its ivory and rubber—20 percent of the population may have died. Some say 50 percent.
In the travel brochures, Belgium is promoted as a land of fine beers, gourmet chocolates, and stunning museums. But beneath this facade, is there a twenty-first-century heart of darkness beating? •