I first became interested in euthanasia in 1972 when I unexpectedly received a letter from a Florida death with dignity group, in connection with a public plea for the euthanasia of a child who had Down syndrome.
I recalled that letter while watching the international film premiere, in Ottawa on May 8, of Fatal Flaws, a film by Canadian broadcaster Kevin Dunn. As host and narrator, he asks, are euthanasia and assisted suicide laws leading society down a dangerous path? In partnership with the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, his film looks at selected cases from the Netherlands, Belgium, the United States, and Canada.
The Netherlands is among the most advanced euthanasia countries. Dutch cases recounted in Fatal Flaws include an elderly woman who was pressured to accept euthanasia. But her daughter Helen heard of it and got a second medical opinion which revealed that her mother was not even in danger of dying of natural causes at that time. She passed away peacefully a year later, among family and friends.
Margreet, however, lost her mother to euthanasia without request. The circumstances made me wince. My own mother had had a similar illness, a virulent, fast-acting pneumonia, several years before euthanasia was legal in Canada. She recovered, with emergency treatment, and lived another reasonably pleasant five years. In a euthanasia-positive environment, her life might have ended that winter night.
On a cheerier note, Newfoundlander Candice Lewis, 26, who lives with cerebral palsy, was pressured by her doctor to ask for assisted death. Her mother took her home instead and a whole Down East community pitched in to help, restoring her to her normal life. But, one is left to wonder, what is euthanasia doing to the medical profession?
The most arresting case was Aurelia, the Dutch girl whose psychiatric problems included a fixation on dying. Despite Dunn’s (and others’) best efforts to help her, she was euthanized January 26, 2018, a poster child for euthanasia for psychiatric reasons. It’s hard to see how things could have turned out this way if lethal injection were not simply one of life’s many choices in the post-modern Netherlands.
The death with dignity group that contacted me in 1972 and its many successors have achieved much but they are only just beginning. As Dunn puts it, “Almost every country in the world is discussing some form of legalization and America is “at a tipping point.” Now and then the euthanasia and assisted suicide campaigners face setbacks. Recently, the American Medical Association restated its objection to assisted suicide, rejecting the claim that it somehow isn’t “suicide,” a big talking point with the campaigners. Indeed, progress is stalling as Americans realize that the Netherlands is their future if the vote is yes.
But medical acceptance of euthanasia is not what American opponents most fear. They fear a Roe v. Wade-type Supreme Court decision (1973) that sweeps aside all laws against helping to kill another human being, where consent is offered. That has already happened in Canada. Not only are the numbers rising swiftly, but doctors are increasingly asked about child euthanasia. And according to one survey, most Quebec caregivers approve euthanasia for dementia patients without their consent. Given the sharp progressive tilt of the American bar and bench, the Americans interviewed have every reason to worry.
Five percent of deaths in the Netherlands, we are told, are now attributed to euthanasia. Euthanasia for anyone on request is currently debated for all adults (“completion of life”). And why not? If death is a good or at least neutral thing, why should anyone be denied? Why should those who can’t consent be denied? Why shouldn’t doctors who are unwilling to kill, be compelled to refer for death, as they now are in Ontario, Canada?
The Netherlands opposition, as recorded in the film, amounts to feeble, apologetic peeps from people with little influence in an emphatically post-Christian culture. I was unimpressed with the early campaigner for euthanasia, Boudewijn Chabot, who mumbles about a “worrisome culture shift” in which euthanasia is “‘getting out of hand.” Given the cultural drivers, there was no possibility that it would turn out any other way. He is partly responsible for the change, whether he chooses to embrace it or not. One struggles to remember that, during the Nazi occupation in World War II, 6,200 doctors went on strike against the “deportation of the insane and sick persons [to death camps] and the sterilization of healthy people.”
And what of the other side in those days? Spencer Tracy, as judge Dan Haywood ) in Judgment at Nuremberg, ponders how the deaths of millions proceeded from the Nazi medical euthanasia program in the 1930s) in orderly steps. He says, “Herr Janning, it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”
Cultures can change fast and hard. No one watches that kind of stuff anymore. Opponents of euthanasia, as portrayed in the film, think and speak in a way that no longer communicates effectively. That is not their fault. It is hard to know how they could communicate effectively. They argue rationally, citing evidence and precedent, among people whose education has taught them to reject, as a matter of duty, the rigors of rational thinking and the demands of evidence and to do what feels right to them at given time.
“Care, don’t kill” is the film’s urgent plea. But, to a post-modern, killing someone who seems to want or need it is the ultimate act of caring. And in that, post-moderns are consistent. If a woman can show her baby love by having the baby dismembered alive in an abortion, she can also show a surviving child love later by having him lethally injected if he has a disability.
Fundamental assumptions about human life have changed in recent decades. Over 40% of Americans today believe that humans are not special. The cultural revolution that would overturn such an assumption is nowhere in sight. Quite the contrary. In the Western world, many are gradually losing touch with traditional reasons to avoid suicide or euthanasia, typically religion, philosophy, family, or lifelong friends, in favour of transient, fungible relationships. Are you old enough to remember when divorce was a legal problem? When people worried about the effect of daycare on infants? Or of promiscuity?
As things unfold, opposition to euthanasia will likely come to be seen the way that opposition to abortion increasingly is: a sort of hate crime, an injustice against those who wish euthanasia for themselves or for a dependent person. Suicide hotlines will be pressured, if not compelled, to tell callers that they can have medical assistance in dying if they wish, just as pro-life pregnancy counselling services are pressured or required today in a number of jurisdictions to advertise abortion. In any event, many people will feel that they should not have to endure unpleasant, moralistic opposition to their possible choices.
Because I am concurrently writing a series on artificial intelligence, I can’t help noticing an ominous confluence of events. Soon, for the first time in history, social, and political elites supported by artificial intelligence will not need large numbers of humans to carry out their wishes and validate their power. Of course, governments may choose to support long-lived dependents, whether from virtue or virtue signalling. Space entrepreneur Elon Musk assures us that government must pay us a wage anyway. Maybe, but we will have little bargaining power. Such governments have no compelling reason to discourage euthanasia for those who wish it for themselves or dependents. Some may be surprised to learn that one acknowledged reason for criminalizing suicide attempts in the past was precisely that people were assumed to be needed.
What to do? If more jurisdictions adopt the Ontario approach and eliminate conscientious objection, patients will soon lack local access to doctors unwilling to help kill them, in an age when a rising senior population is challenging public healthcare systems across the world. The Vatican and Italy offered to take Alfie Evans (2016–2018) to Rome for treatment. In that case, it was to no avail, but their idea needs exploring. No-kill medical facilities in jurisdictions that are not answerable to the euthanasia lobby may eventually be the only hope for dissenters from death.
The evening I went to the film, a New York Times article whistled past my desk, noting that states that inflict capital punishment are starting to use nitrogen gas rather than lethal injections because they are “hamstrung by troubles with lethal injection — gruesomely botched attempts, legal battles and growing difficulty obtaining the drugs.” Gruesomely botched attempts? We never hear about that in articles that promote euthanasia.
Fatal Flaws notes that the Dutch doctor who forcibly injected a woman who was struggling against him was exonerated. I hadn’t heard that either. Later, we won’t hear about such things because they won’t be news. And, after a few decades of euthanasia, no matter what else happens, Western society will be very different, and — one suspects — more sparsely populated, at least by Westerners.
Denyse O’Leary is an Ottawa-based author, blogger, and journalist.