The cynical epitaph for the rakish King Charles II of England — “Here lies our Sovereign Lord the King, Whose word no man relies on ; Who never said a foolish thing, And never did a wise one.” — sums up most republicans’ feelings towards constitutional monarchs. Palatial accommodation, fabulous salaries, gorgeous clothes, jetsetting, handshakes with everyone from Bono to Barack – all this just to sign a few laws tossed across a desk by the government of the day.
However, 53-year-old Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg is made of different stuff. He has just precipitated a constitutional crisis in his tiny (population 470,000) realm by refusing to grant royal assent to a law authorising euthanasia — “for reasons of conscience”.
Back in February the Luxembourg parliament voted to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide, copying the pioneers in this dark trend, neighbouring Belgium and the Netherlands. The law would let doctors kill the terminally ill if they asked repeatedly and had the consent of two doctors and a panel of experts. Luxembourg’s Prime Minister, strongly backed the bill, even though it was opposed by his own party, the Christian Social People’s party. It narrowly passed, by a vote of 30 to 26, thanks to support from Socialists and Greens.
The Grand Duke’s refusal is nearly unprecedented in his nation’s politics. “I understand the Grand Duke’s problems of conscience,” Mr Juncker declared. “But I believe that if the parliament votes in a law, it must be brought into force.”
A streak of moral sensitivity seems to run in the Grand Duke’s family. In a remarkably similar case in 1990, his uncle, King Baudouin I of Belgium, also refused to sign a law legalising abortion. He abdicated for two days while the measure passed through Parliament.
The constitutional deadlock has been resolved by changing the constitution: the Grand Duke will be stripped of his constitutional veto. Before the Parliament votes on the third reading of the euthanasia bill, it will alter article 34 of Luxembourg’s constitution. From then on the Grand Duke will not actually sanction new laws, but merely enact them. Exercising his conscience has cost Henri and his successors a precious traditional prerogative.
Was it worth it?
According to the classic analysis of the 19th century English journalist Walter Bagehot, a constitutional monarch has three rights, “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn” – but not the right to obstruct the government’s purpose. And a monarch who refuses to promulgate legislation is all but unheard of.
But, for all that, a monarch is a man whose conscience is a public good. His subjects will assume that if he signs a piece of legislation, he must have seen no fundamental evil in it, nothing that fatally undermines human dignity. As the head of state, he inevitably is regarded as a model of civic virtue. One of the great benefits of a monarchical system, Bagehot argues, is that it makes the ideals and working of government intelligible to the common man. A monarch without virtue undermines the institution.
So the Grand Duke cannot not decline personal responsibility for allowing fellow citizens to be killed by doctors, no matter how much political pressure is applied. A Man For All Seasons, Robert Bolt’s play about Thomas More, illustrates this this point. One of his old friends asks More why he would not sign the Oath of Supremacy: “Why can’t you do as I did and come with us, for fellowship!” And More replies, “And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”
Local politicians believed that he should have rubber-stamped the law, since he is just another cog in the political machine. But even a Grand Duke is a man, not a machine. Had he sanctioned the euthanasia bill, his fellow citizens could easily have thought that euthanasia is consistent with democracy, solidarity and human dignity. But it is not. On the contrary, legalised euthanasia abandons the sick and dying at the most vulnerable moments of their life. It cheapens human life and corrupts the medical profession. It has immense potential for abuse.
Developments throughout the Western world in the last few months have shown that respect for conscientious objection is under threat. After 40 years of idolising whim and caprice masquerading as conscience, the pendulum is swinging back the other way. Governments are trampling on consciences even though they have been shaped by an objective moral law, not personal preference. Countering this trend takes courage. Luxembourgers should be proud that their constitutional monarch is a man who refuses to become a constitutional mannequin.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.