I came across this video this morning on YouTube.
The video is centred on two persons wishing to die, an old lady in good physical and mental health who could not get over her grief on losing her daughter, and a more borderline case – a young man and father of a family stricken with some disease that caused unbearable head pain.
The first thing that struck me was the complete absence of religious or spiritual notions. The old lady seemed to believe in an afterlife, because she wanted to be with her daughter who died from a surgical complication. She was given a glass of a sugary liquid containing a lethal dose of barbiturates by Dr Marc van Hoay who in 2015 faced a murder charge. The video gives us the impression that Belgian law protects doctors prepared to help people to commit suicide rather than give guarantees that there would be no slippery slope towards compulsory suicide and trains to gas chambers for reasons of money or convenience.
Where is the line drawn? Some cases are known to be quite flippant, sometimes involving children and young adults suffering from depression, far from the cases calling on a sense of compassion of terminal cancer or complete and degenerative paralysis. There are cases that make it difficult to refuse the possibility of a painless death, and others where it is not so sure that the medical profession can be certain that this is really what the person wants without any kind of coercion. In the Van Hoay case and the old woman, we are marked by the seeming lack of emotion and the almost banalisation of death. The woman went about her morning routine as always on the day she had the appointment with Dr Van Hoay.
Pope John Paul II in 1995 taught in Evangelium Vitae:
I confirm that euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium…
To concur with the intention of another person to commit suicide and to help in carrying it out through so-called ‘assisted suicide’ means to cooperate in, and at times to be the actual perpetrator of, an injustice which can never be excused, even if it is requested…
Laws which legitimize the direct killing of innocent human beings through abortion or euthanasia are in complete opposition to the inviolable right to life proper to every individual…
Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize.
This is the traditional teaching of the Church, and the ACC certainly teaches the same thing. One thing that struck me in the video was the question of whether medical care could be improved for people expressing a desire to die. One big problem is that interested parties are making excessive profits from health care. There is a true risk that the heart-wrenching cases will lead us to something little better than what the Nazis were doing to get rid of “useless eaters” and races they considered as inferior. Where is the line, and in a society where spiritual values have all but gone? The death of that old woman left me with the idea that her suicide was not justified. We all lose loved ones and have to come to terms with our grief, and she would have found salvation through conversion to Christ and self-transcendence.
I have known people who have died of cancer and other terrible diseases, and have been edified by the way they faced death in whatever way God would bring it to them. It is reassuring to know that hospice care is more available than many people think. The agonising pain from cancer can be very effectively managed with drugs, and many professionals and volunteers dedicate their time and effort to looking after the terminally ill. It certainly takes humility to accept the loss of autonomy and the need of others. The choice of life and death is not ours to make, except – certainly – the choice to forego being (for example) kept alive by a machine. As medicine and the prolongation of life progress, these issues become harder and harder. We also live in a world where Christianity is hardly a reference any more.
I am very preoccupied with the notion of the human person and the “nobility of the spirit”, which are increasingly scarce in today’s world. What really went through the mind of that woman who drank the fatal potion? Did she ever ask for a priest or other minister? Who of us is not torn by these moral dilemmas and calls for compassion?
What does this facial expression mean to you as the potion is poured out of its bottle?
A little research showed the young Belgian man to be Peter Ketelslegers, still alive and relying on medical help a year after this video was made. We should pray for him and for others suffering from the same condition, that they may find relief and hope in God against all hope. It’s not always clear cut, but we must be pro-life in all circumstances.