Earlier this month, Belgium became the first country to remove all age restrictions pertaining to euthanasia for minors, leading me to wonder whether misguided efforts to alleviate suffering are more for the benefit of the caregivers than those allegedly suffering. I’m reminded of my mother’s slow decline due to Alzheimer’s disease and my own discomfort and perceptions of her “dignity” and/or “suffering” such as did or did not exist. We too easily forget the redemptive value of suffering, both for those suffering and those who give care for those who suffer.
Such is the case, I believe, with the recently enacted legislation in Belgium that extends the “right” of euthanasia to everyone regardless of age. Predictably, the legislation drew worldwide publicity with equally predictable responses based on “party” lines. Those favoring the legislation included the admittedly liberal Belgium press and a small percentage of pro-euthanasia advocates. Notably, many pro-euthanasia advocates were silent on the developments in Belgium; reasons cited for this were that the pro camp believed the touchy nature of legalizing child euthanasia would cause a setback to those seeking to extend those rights to adults. Those opposing child euthanasia came from the ranks of the prolife and religious circles. What does this say about our modern world? Clearly there is a divide between those who favor changing with the tides of public opinion and the times versus those who hold a belief in adhering to a moral code grounded in age old religious beliefs.
Polls indicated that the mostly secular population of Belgium was 75% in favor of the new legislation. The Belgium media “expressed rank incomprehension” over the worldwide outcry, calling the legislation “humane”. American publisher, Steve Forbes, wrote, “We are on the malignantly slippery slope to becoming a society like that envisioned by Nazi Germany, one in which ‘undesirables’ are disposed of like used tissue.” What of this slippery slope? The comments of Bart Sturtewagen, editor of one of Belgium’s leading newspapers, are telling; as regards euthanasia, he notes that Belgians have “grown used to it as an option for the final stages of their lives.” Grown used to it? Furthermore, he expresses his “annoyance” at those in the foreign media who refer to “killing children,” noting that those in Belgium “don’t use that kind of language anymore.” As if changing the language changes the behavior. Both “growing used to it” and “we don’t use that kind of language anymore” are clear indicators of the path that slippery slope takes.
We are too inclined today to believe that we are in control of all outcomes. In the West, all too often we desire unending youth and beauty, a life of eternal happiness into which no pain or suffering is allowed to wander. Is this realistic? Or, when we discover that such a life is impossible, do we instead attempt to eradicate the dark shadows of sickness, old age, deformity? Do we attempt to truncate life at both ends of the continuum, leaving a happy middle where there are no shadows, no pain or suffering beyond a mere toothache or annoying cold?
The comments of a mother in Belgium highlight her personal discomfort with the struggles of her infant daughter. Linda van Roy felt helpless in the face of the suffering of her 10 month old daughter in her last hours. Palliative sedation at ever increasing levels and the withholding of food and water eventually led to the infant’s death. Van Roy, who supported the legislation, would have preferred to have administered a lethal injection to end her daughter’s life more quickly. Her comment, “What’s the use of keeping this baby alive?” demonstrates a utilitarian approach to thinking and a false compassion. Essentially, van Roy is saying, “I can’t stand this any longer, let’s get this over with!” The emphasis is on “I” – van Roy’s own personal discomfort. Interestingly, van Roy’s daughter would not have met the requirements for child euthanasia under the new law. Furthermore, a clear majority of the medical community will state that with proper palliative care no one should suffer intolerable pain. In fact, pain is seldom the reason people seek euthanasia.
There is nothing worse as a parent than having to endure the suffering of one’s child. But to alleviate that suffering by lethal injection is murder and should be cause for grave concern. The European Social Rights Committee has condemned Belgium for its lack of social programs and violation of the European Social Charter. With no social support for the disabled and their families and a poorly regulated euthanasia industry, Belgium sacrifices patient safety for individual choice. Do we really want to follow in the footsteps of Belgium? Or should we instead be looking at how we can improve the lives of those who suffer, of those who are disabled? Clearly the use of “intolerable pain” as a justification for euthanasia is a smoke screen for other intentions. Do we really want to buy into a belief system that justifies killing when the suffering of another offends our sensibilities? When a life is less than perfect? Clearly Belgium has spoken in the affirmative on all levels of that argument with their recent enactment of legislative removing age restrictions for euthanasia.
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