In 2002, Belgium became the second country in the world after its neighbour, The Netherlands, to legalise euthanasia. Over the next decade our country has become a living laboratory for radical social change. With many other countries debating legalisation at the moment, now is a good moment to stand back and take a good long look at the results.
In 2002 Belgium was governed by a coalition of Liberals and Social Democrats. The slightly more conservative Christian Democrats had been excluded. With blue as the colour of the Liberals and red of the left-leaning Social Democrats, the press dubbed it the Purple coalition.
The Christian Democrats took a dim view of euthanasia, but they were in opposition. The Purple coalition was free to pass an euthanasia law based on the view that an individual should always have a “free choice” to end his life. In absolutizing individual self-determination the left and the right found common ground.
The law states that doctors can help patients to die when they freely express a wish to die because they are suffering intractable and unbearable pain. The patient needs to consult a second independent doctor; for non-terminal illnesses an independent psychiatrist must approve. In practice, however, this independence is irrelevant. Belgium is a small country and compliant doctors are easy to find.
A string of recent cases leaves no doubt that the euthanasia law has fundamentally and drastically changed Belgian society. Last year 45-year-old deaf identical twin brothers who couldn’t bear the thought of going blind were granted euthanasia. Doctors granted their request because they “had nothing to live for” anyway. According to the doctor who gave the lethal injection it was not “such a big deal”.
In another case, a 44-year-old woman with chronic anorexia nervosa was euthanased. Then a 64-year-old woman suffering from chronic depression was euthanased without informing her relatives. The doctors defended their decisions by explaining that these extreme and exceptional cases were legitimate because all legal conditions were met.
Euthanasia is hardening from a medical option into an ideology. Belgium’s euthanasia doctors even believe they are being humane because they are liberating people from their misery. Fundamentalist humanists go further and describe euthanasia as the ultimate act of self-determination. The opinion of the patient’s family has no weight whatsoever. A doctor is entitled to give the mother of a family a lethal injection without offering any explanation to her children. Euthanasia is being promoted as a “beautiful” and positive way to die. Doctors are transplanting organs from patients who die in the operation. (This is said to make their lives meaningful.) The law may soon allow children and patients with dementia to be euthanased.
Since 2002 opponents of the law (like us) have been marginalised as rigid and heartless conservatives who feel ill at ease in a post-modern, pluralistic and progressive society like Belgium. (1) The Christian Democrats have repudiated their traditional values and support the law. Questioning it has become taboo because the absolute right of the individual might be violated.
There are still some significant critics, apart from the Catholic Church. The Belgian philosopher Herman De Dijn is an outspoken opponent. He describes Belgium as a “sentimentalist society” in which traditional values have been drastically minimized and replaced by subjective preferences. (2) A sentimentalist society no longer subscribes to ethical values other than those which are related to the search for individual happiness (autonomy and no-harm). Communal responsibilities and moral institutions are being discarded in the search for purely individual well-being; interdependence and connectedness are ignored.
De Dijn feels that this is the nub of the problem. A human being is not a bundle of individual feelings, opinions and preferences, but part of a species, a member of mankind, a vital link in the moral ecology where every individual has a unique symbolic value. Respect for human dignity includes not only respect for personal choices but also for connectedness to loved ones and society.
Supporters of the euthanasia regime repudiate this secular critique — as well as the baneful influence of the Catholic Church. (3) However, their ideology of absolute self-determination has become so strong that it is morphing into a theology, a quasi-religious fanaticism. They have invented comforting symbols and rituals to express their beliefs. A self-determination card describes a patient’s final wishes so that the social services know what to do in a terminal illness. There are centres where people can ask questions about how euthanasia can be performed. There is indoctrination in self-determination for doctors and volunteers who wear their euthanasia enabler certificates as badges of honour. There is scorn and shame for heretics who question the consensus. There are emollient politicians who play the “religious” card to win voters.
Nonetheless, we are hopeful. Surely it must be possible to convince the Belgian public that something is terribly, terribly wrong when politicians are debating whether parents can legally have their children put down. It is not humane and it is not scientific. There is no scientific scale of unbearable suffering. With advances in pain relief, euthanasia is not even needed.
The key insight of the green movement is that all living beings are interconnected – even us humans. Especially us humans. The job of politicians is to protect this connectedness. Otherwise, why should parents care for their dependent children? Why should children care for dependent parents? Once we lose the sense that each of us is bound to one another with invisible cords of fellowship, we will end by killing all those who are burdens on society. And at some stage, all of us are going to be burdens.
Euthanasia does not threaten religious dogmas. Churches will stay open no matter what happens in hospitals and nursing homes. What is threatened is humanism. Instead of standing strong, arms linked together as brothers and sisters, the dogma of self-determination separates us, places us in bubbles of isolation, and then offers to kill us – if we want. In today’s Belgium all of us are at risk.
Tom Mortier and Steven Bieseman teach in Leuven University College, in Belgium. They would like to thank Emeritus Professor Herman De Dijn for valuable discussions and Sylvia Statz for advice about translating the text.
(1) Burms A. and De Dijn H., De sacraliteit van leven en dood, Pelckmans Uitgeverij nv, Kalmthout, (2011), S. 71-89.
(2) De Dijn H., Taboes, monsters en loterijen, Uitgeverij Pelckmans, Kapellen (2003), S. 23-25.
(3) Burms A. and De Dijn H., De sacraliteit van leven en dood, Pelckmans Uitgeverij nv, Kalmthout, (2011), S. 91-99.