News flash from Brussels, the nihilism capital of the world! A 24-year-old healthy woman named Laura will soon be euthanased. The reason? Leven, dat is niets voor mij, she says: life, that’s not for me.
And Belgian doctors are happy to accommodate her, even though she is young and even though she is healthy. If she’s not really into life, why not check out the alternative?
A profile in the Belgian newspaper De Morgen tries to explain why Laura has scheduled her death.
She grew up in a dysfunctional household. Her father was drunk and abusive and her mother left him when she was only a year old. From then on she shuttled between her loving grandparents and her mother, who was drunk and slatternly.
By the age of six she was already thinking of suicide. She told the newspaper:
“That thought was very conscious in kindergarten. I was sitting there are the time and I thought, what am I doing here? Or as I was leaving my grandfather for school I thought, ‘I don’t want to be walking here; I don’t want to live at all.’”
(She’s lucky to be 24 years old. Last year Belgium removed the age limit for euthanasia so that children can ask for it. If it had been legal when she was a toddler, she might not have celebrated her seventh birthday.)
In high school Laura started to self-mutilate and cut her arms. She clearly had serious psychological problems and has ended up in a mental hospital. But at the same time, she has studied acting and set up a comfortable flat. She had ample opportunity to commit suicide, but she never did.
But after years of fighting depression, she has had enough. She wants to jump ship. A date has been set for a lethal injection in her apartment. She has planned her funeral, written songs and drafted a booklet. She insists that the Greg Caswell song “Comes and Goes (in Waves)” should be played.
Isn’t anyone going to stop Laura?
Three psychiatrists have approved her application for euthanasia. One of them is Lieve Thienpont, a psychiatrist who has just written a book defending euthanasia for people who are suffering psychologically, Libera Me. (The Latin words of the book’s title are taken from a Catholic prayer for the dead.) Laura went to the book launch recently.
The attitude among the Belgian euthanasia fraternity is that life and death are really not such a big deal. In a powerful feature in The New Yorker recently, some of the doctors explained their attitude.
Dr Wim Distelmans, who both does euthanasia and is the chairman of the Federal Control and Evaluation Commission, which reviews euthanasia paperwork to check that doctors observe regulations, said: “If you ask for euthanasia because you are alone, and you are alone because you don’t have family to take care of you, we cannot create family.”
In other words, people who live in a crumbling social network are on their own. Belgian doctors will do their best to kill them, but not to find a solution to their loneliness.
Another doctor, Dirk De Wachter, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Leuven, told The New Yorker about one of his cases:
He recently approved the euthanasia of a twenty-five-year-old woman with borderline personality disorder who did not “suffer from depression in the psychiatric sense of the word,” he said. “It was more existential; it was impossible for her to have a goal in this life.” He said that her parents “came to my office, got on their knees, and begged me, ‘Please, help our daughter to die.’ ”
The law is a teacher. Belgium’s euthanasia law is teaching Belgian parents that death is better than life.
For the euthanasia fraternity, life is no longer a treasure. They have revived the ancient pessimism of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who is renowned for his maxim: “Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”
Which is precisely what Etienne Vermeersch, the former president of the Belgian Advisory Committee on Bioethics, and reputedly the most influential intellectual in Flanders (the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium), told The New Yorker’s reporter: “How can you be afraid of nothing? Nothing can do you no harm … After death, your relationships are finished. You are in the state you were before conception.”
Laura’s story suggests that this nihilism among Belgian doctors has affected their willingness to go the extra mile for their patients. She told De Morgen:
“At one stage, my crisis was so severe that it was too much even for the staff. Sometimes I was not allowed in the institute for a few weeks just so they could have a breather. I still find that incomprehensible, and I don’t think highly of psychiatry. I had to save myself but this caused a significant breach of trust.”
Whether this is a sign of incompetence or indifference, it still suggests that Belgium’s psychiatric services are deficient. It’s reminiscent of Belloc’s savage verses:
Physicians of the Utmost Fame
Were called at once; but when they came
They answered, as they took their Fees,
‘There is no Cure for this Disease.
But ultimately the problem is that Belgians have turned the idea of limitless freedom into a national philosophy of nihilism. It is a country where you can define yourself as gay or you can define yourself as straight. You can define yourself as male or you can define yourself as female. And you can define yourself as living or you can define yourself as dead.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.