Tourists at the entrance to Auschwitz
The leading practitioner of euthanasia in Belgium, Dr Wim Distelmans, is organizing an instructional tour to Auschwitz, the Nazi extermination camp in October. In an invitation for healthcare professionals he describes Auschwitz as an ‘inspiring’ surrounding in which to ‘clarify confusion about euthanasia’.
In fact, Dr Distelmans’s tour does help to clarify matters: it shows that how little distance there is between Belgian euthanasia in 2014 and Nazi death camps in 1944.
Linking the right to die and the Nazis is a no-no in most circles. In fact, opponents are usually deemed to have lost the argument as soon as they mention the word “Nazi”. But Dr Distelmans’s breath-taking initiative could change that rule. To hold a seminar on euthanasia in an extermination camp where the idea of ‘lives not worth living’ took its most extreme form, is peculiar, to say the least.
Dr Distelmans has often been in world headlines. He was filmed on television killing Nathan Verhelst who was suffering after failed sex reassignment surgery. He performed the world’s first double euthanasia when he killed twin brothers Marc and Eddy Verbessem, whom Belgium’s social services were not able to help. At least three times he has been involved in euthanasing people who are depressed.
Dr Distelmans has also chaired the Belgium Euthanasia Control and Evaluation Commission since euthanasia was legalised in 2000 – a commission which has never investigated a single death.
In a brochure emailed to his contacts he describes the study tour as follows:
“Belgium is the only country in the world with a law that is concerned about a dignified end-of-life for everyone because of the patients rights law, the law on palliative care and the euthanasia law. In our country there is – unlike other countries of continental Europe – already 25 years of excellent professional palliative care and for more than 10 years we also have experience with transparent euthanasia requests and respect for patient rights.
“In dealing with the problems of life, one is constantly confronted with existential pain, questions about the meaning of life, self-reflection, reliance, self-determination, finiteness and especially with (in)dignity. Therefore, it seemed a logical step to us to plan the next study trip to the place that is the eminent symbol of an unworthy end-of-life being Oświęcim, better known as Auschwitz, the extermination camp of the Nazis in Poland. This site is an inspiring venue for organizing a seminar and reflecting on these issues so that we can consider and clarify confusions.”
Dr Distelmans appears to have suffered a severe lapse of judgement. If, hypothetically, an Association of American State Prisons Executioners were to organise a holiday tour of Auschwitz with their wives and partners, staying at an expensive hotel and winding up an exhausting day at one of the best restaurants in Krakow (as Dr Distelmans and his fellow travellers will be doing), would there not be an uproar? What experience would they have gained there? Quicker ways of gassing prisoners? More efficient ways of administering lethal injections? Less painful ways of withdrawing nutrition and hydration? No doubt even their friends and admirers would question their eagerness to be “inspired” at a venue so steeped in horror.
It is widely acknowledged that the Nazi euthanasia program was a trial run for the death camps. It began in 1939 with the mercy killing of a severely disabled child. By the end of World War II, 5,000 sick and “idiot” children had received the blessing of a mercy killing. This experience was so fruitful that it grew into the T4 program for the mercy killing of chronically ill and disabled adults. There were so many of these that Hitler’s mercy killing technicians invented the gas chambers which proved so effective at Auschwitz.
It is gratifying for us to see Dr Distelmans connect the dots between euthanasia in Brussels and the atrocities of Auschwitz. It confirms for us the dark future of Belgium’s legal euthanasia. It should terrify all the chronically ill and disabled who live there.
Nonetheless, it is surprising that Dr Distelmans is allowing himself to be associated with the medical faculty of Auschwitz University, a confraternity which included such illustrious researchers as Dr Josef Mengele, Dr Eduard Wirths, Dr Horst Schumann and Dr Carl Clauberg.
As persistent critics of Dr Distelmans, we have been accused of blackening the name of the good doctor. But while we have our disagreements, we have never, ever, linked him to the atrocities, the inhumanity, and the repellent euphemisms of the Nazi era. He has done this all by himself.
Dr Kevin Fitzpatrick is Director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition Europe and a leader of Not Dead Yet UK. Dr Tom Mortier lectures in chemistry at Leuven University College, in Belgium.