Euthanasia claimed its most famous victim last Saturday. At the age of 95, Belgian Nobel laureate Christian de Duve was killed with a lethal injection. He died in his home, surrounded by his four children.
He had planned his death for weeks and even explained his reasons and his philosophy of life in a long interview with the Belgian newspaper Le Soir. This was published immediately after his demise.
Apparently de Duve had cancer, but he had also fallen down on April 1 and spent several humiliating hours on the floor. He took it as a sign of worse to come and decided to set a date for his euthanasia – which is legal in Belgium. He waited until his son, who lives in the United States, arrived home. His daughter Anne described the final moments to Le Soir.
“It was impressive. He was smiling, asking us not to cry, saying that it was a happy moment. I’ve never seen anyone who was so full of life at the moment of death. He left us in great serenity, refusing painkillers before the final injection. As he left us, he said farewell as he smiled at us.”
Born in 1917, Dr de Duve was deservedly famous in Belgium as its only living Nobel laureate. He shared the 1974 Nobel in Physiology or Medicine with Albert Claude and George E. Palade. His contribution was describing the structure and function of discovered peroxisomes and lysosomes, small structures within cells. In his very active retirement, he devoted himself to writing about the origin of life.
No doubt de Duve’s death will be used by the euthanasia and assisted suicide lobbies in the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and elsewhere as an advertisement for legalisation. Belgian notables tumbled over themselves to eulogise his memory. Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo praised his exemplary career and public spirit. Leading politician Paul Magnette lauded his conviction and courage. P.Z. Meyers, of the popular blog Pharyngula, exclaimed: “What a dignified and honorable way to go!”
And, in fact, De Duve’s death seems like the ideal euthanasia. A man who had exhausted the best life had to offer decided in all lucidity and serenity that it was time to slip away, surrounded by those who loved him. Why shouldn’t everyone be able to depart like this?
Don’t be fooled. De Duve’s death is no advertisement for euthanasia.
First of all, activists argue that it is a necessary escape for the terminally ill in unbearable pain. De Duve was not terminally ill and not in unbearable pain. He was very old and dependent, but apparently not bed-ridden. His death makes it clear that the Belgians think that being old is reason enough for doctors to kill someone. And relatives are unlikely to stop them.
Second, newspaper accounts suggest that he believed that he was a burden on his children. His beloved wife had died in 2008. His health was failing. No one was urging him to keep living. On the contrary, the journalist from Le Soir, Béatrice Delvaux, seemed thrilled at the news that he would be euthanased. She made no effort to dissuade him. His children all agreed that it was best for him to go.
Despite his daughter’s tender words, this sounds more like elder abuse than care. As one profane but perceptive comment on the Pharnygula blog put it, “He made the decision after taking a fall? This article makes it sound like if you break a hip you’re better off dead. It is the most insulting and dehumanizing form of ableism imaginable.”
Finally, even if de Duve was not suffering from clinical depression, he seemed temperamentally melancholic. His 2009 book, the Genetics of Original Sin, despairs of the future of the environment and of the human race. He sketches a world worthy of Hieronymus Bosch:
“The living world has become impoverished, species are being lost every day, energy and other resources are nearing exhaustion, the environment is deteriorating, pollution is everywhere, climate is changing, natural balances are threatened. Especially, human beings are being crushed by their own number. Overcrowded cities are spawning increasingly lawless suburbs. Waste is accumulating in and around them, straining the capacity to deal with it. Vast areas are witness to the struggles of destitute populations trying to survive under unlivable conditions.
“In spite of the advances of medicine, deathly epidemics are more menacing than ever before. Conflicts, exacerbated by economic disparities, nationalisms, and fundamentalisms, are raging in various parts of the world. The specter of a nuclear holocaust has become thinkable.”
De Duve was a lightning rod for all of the anxieties of baby boomers. Although he was born a generation before them, he dreamed the same nightmares, worshipped the same heroes, and proposed the same solutions.
His heroes were Malthus and Paul Ehrlich; his villain was the oppressive and obsessive Catholic Church (even though he was a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences). His solutions were anything which would defuse the population bomb: homosexuality, contraception, sterilisation, abortion, taxing children… “Given the urgency of the problem, political authorities should, with the support of as many moral authorities as possible, take active positions in favor of limiting births,” he wrote.
De Duve’s philosophy was that we will all perish unless we take responsibility for directing our own evolution. He even thought that Brave New World’s hatcheries of cloned infants were a better idea than the randomness of natural procreation. “Substituting reasoned choice for such a blind game could be seen as desirable,” he wrote. Man’s inability to fix the lottery of life seems to have driven him to a deep pessimism.
Like a snowball of angst, de Duve rolled through the last years of his life, adding more and more existential threats to the continued existence of humanity until he became a miserabilist snowman with a scarf emblazoned “Après nous le Déluge.”
With all this weighing upon him, no wonder he asked for euthanasia. No wonder his baby-boomer children thought it was a good idea. Despair over his own present and despair over the world’s future was literally a lethal combination.
There is a lesson here for the rest of the world. De Duve’s choice is worrying in the light of the staggering increase in baby-boomer suicides in the US. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published earlier this month, suicide rates among men in their 50s have risen more than 50 percent in the last decade. For women in their early 60s, the increase is nearly 60 percent.
“It is the baby boomer group where we see the highest rates of suicide,” the CDC’s deputy director, Ileana Arias, told the New York Times. “There may be something about that group, and how they think about life issues and their life choices that may make a difference.”
“The boomers had great expectations for what their life might look like, but I think perhaps it hasn’t panned out that way,” she said. “All these conditions the boomers are facing, future cohorts are going to be facing many of these conditions as well.”
By one calculation the number of euthanasia cases in Belgium has increased 4,620 percent since it was legalised in 2002. There’s no telling how many would die if baby-boomers miserabilists in the US, UK, Canada or Australia had Christian de Duve’s option.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.