A reader writes:
I’m a longtime reader of your blog, and while your writing has certainly made me, an agnostic/atheist, more sympathetic towards religion and its followers than I was as a callous teenager and young adult, this one article had the effect of making me practically jump in my car and speed to the nearest church. It’s horrific, and I try not to use that term lightly.
She’s talking about a piece in the current issue of The New Yorker about the euthanasia culture in Belgium. It is as horrifying as she says it is, and about as pure an expression of what John Paul II called the “Culture of Death” as you can imagine in our time. Euthanasia, the magazine reports, is thoroughly mainstream in Belgium, and embracing it has become a sign of what it means to be modern. Wim Distelmans, the Dr. Kevorkian of Belgium, has become a respected celebrity. From the piece:
In Belgium, euthanasia is embraced as an emblem of enlightenment and progress, a sign that the country has extricated itself from its Catholic, patriarchal roots. Distelmans, who was brought up as a Catholic and then rejected the Church, told me that his work is inspired by an aversion to all forms of paternalism. “Who am I to convince patients that they have to suffer longer than they want?” he said.
The euthanasia culture is a fruit of post-Christianity. Even its proponents say so:
De Wachter believes that the country’s approach to suicide reflects a crisis of nihilism created by the rapid secularization of Flemish culture in the past thirty years. Euthanasia became a humanist solution to a humanist dilemma. “What is life worth when there is no God?” he said. “What is life worth when I am not successful?” He said that he has repeatedly been confronted by patients who tell him, “I am an autonomous decision-maker. I can decide how long I live. When I think my life is not worth living anymore, I must decide.” 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.’ ”
De Wachter told me, “I don’t want to kill people—I don’t think psychiatrists should kill people—but when the suffering is so extreme we cannot look the other way.” When he gives lectures, he tries to appeal to Christian audiences by saying, “If Jesus were here, I think he would help these people.”
René Stockman, the director of a Catholic organization, Brothers of Charity, which says that it runs a third of the psychiatric institutions in Belgium, told me, “They are using our Christian vocabulary in a new context. They say they are ‘saving’ people from their bad lives, through ‘mercy’ and ‘compassion.’ I cannot accept that.” He sees euthanasia as a failure of both psychiatry and medical education. “Any questions about ethics—they say, ‘Oh, we need a specialist for that.’ They are not learning to reflect morally on what they are doing.”
The invocation of science and the resort to euphemism to disguise murder: where have we seen that before?
The New Yorker piece follows Tom Mortier, the son of Godelieva, a depressed woman euthanized by Distelmans. Tom is outraged that the doctor approved his mother’s choice for euthanasia without consulting family members; Tom and his sister only learned of their mother’s death after the fact. From a Daily Telegraph profile of Tom and his outspoken criticism of euthanasia:
“If you made a movie about what’s happening, people just wouldn’t believe it, but in Belgium, it’s reality,” Mr Mortier, 38, told The Sunday Telegraph. “You should not give a physician the right, or the legal possibility, to give someone a lethal injection, and definitely not to people with mental illnesses or older people tired of life. These are people who should be helped.”
The doctor who carried out euthanasia on Mr Mortier’s mother was Professor Wim Distelmans, an oncologist (cancer specialist) and expert in palliative care. A charismatic advocate for the right to elect for death in cases of “unbearable suffering,” he is something of a celebrity figure in Belgium.
He tours the country, dressed casually in jeans and a polo shirt, giving joke-filled talks at rallies on how to request euthanasia. He is estimated to have administered euthanasia to more than 1,000 people.
Last year, he came under fire after organising a tour to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, which he described in a leaflet as an “inspiring venue” for discussions on the euthanasia issues. He said the camp was “the pre-eminent symbol of a degrading end of life”.
Tom Mortier’s one-man crusade against the euthanasia culture earned the attention of a sympathetic Belgian philosopher, who is “troubled by the way that his colleagues’ theories about autonomy seemed to have stiffened into ideology, a mentality that the euthanasia law both reflected and encouraged.” The philosopher warned Tom that the Belgian media, which is heavily pro-euthanasia, was going to tear him to bits. And in fact, Tom was savaged in the media and in popular culture for his unenlightened attitude. Thousands of prominent Belgians — including politicians, celebrities, journalists, academics, and athletes — signed a public petition denouncing Tom. One critic even denounced Tom, who is non-religious, as “secretly Catholic.”
Here is the creepiest part of the story:
Last spring, Tom was reviewing his eight-year-old daughter’s journal for school, as he does every night, when he saw in the pages a flyer with Distelmans’s face on it. “Euthanasia lecture: With Wim Distelmans,” it said. It had been put there by his daughter’s non-confessional-ethics teacher, who is also the chair of the local humanist chapter. Tom and his wife e-mailed the school’s principal to complain that the ethics teacher was promoting a lecture by the doctor who had euthanized the grandmother of one of her pupils. The principal apologized for causing discomfort but explained that the “flyer has only an informative character which gives parents the opportunity to get informed about this contemporary humanist subject.” She wrote that the subject of euthanasia was in keeping with the curriculum, but she said that she would advise teachers not to discuss it until after the second grade.
So: Belgian schools are teaching small children about “the contemporary humanist subject” of doctor-assisted suicide, and people who object to it are the crazy ones.
It’s coming here too. They will use Christian categories and Christian language to mainstream it, as they are doing and have done with sex and sexuality, and those who oppose euthanasia will inevitably be denounced as haters and bigots, perhaps even “secretly Catholic.” Euthanasia is the logical endpoint of the belief that the individual is radically autonomous, and that the purpose of life is to maximize enjoyment and minimize suffering. The reader who sent me the New Yorker piece was so frightened by the Belgian utopia that it made her impulsively think of religion as a bulwark against this suicidal nihilism. If not religion, then what? Tell me, reader, what in secular culture is strong enough to stand up to the ideology of autonomous individualism and an ethic that would rather die than live with suffering.