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.
Thank you very much for this! I have the distinct impression that it is very terrible both here in the Netherlands and in neigbouring Belgium, with all sorts of killings not reported even according to the very accommodating possibilities of doing so, and an easy acceptance of the propriety of killing people among cradle-Catholics and -Reformed folk of various sorts, as well as apparently friendly, seemingly sensible agnostics and atheists.
I wonder just how easily medical folk accommodate family as well as patients or just act according to their own judgement – I suspect, quite easily.
And a lot of the discussion of ‘palliative care’ here is not clear to me – e.g., how much it may include just condemning people to dehydration while sedated (or not even that?), or overdosing them on morphine, etc.
I have read here and there that some people have been killed against their will – and therefore were murdered. I do fear that when you start looking into this subject, there is a slippery road down to what the Nazis were doing in the 1930’s and during the war. It is quite frightening because the borderlines are not based on ethics based on a philosophy of the human person (Christianity).
It is quite frightening because the borderlines are not based on ethics based on a philosophy of the human person (Christianity).
A number of questions occur to me here. First, is Christianity an ethics based on a philosophy of the human person? Or is it an ethics based on something much more universal and encompassing? Second, what “Christianity” are we talking about? Everyone appears to take great pains to insist that their own version of Christianity is the better or truer one. Third, how are the moral borders of the question whether to alleviate pain through assisted death not about ethics based on a philosophy of the human person, whichever moral decision is taken? This statement appears to assume that assisted dying has nothing to do with a recognition of the human person, which I would dispute.
There is clearly an issue with knowledge and consent – as well as other circumstances – which bear on the subject. But to assert or imply that no action other than to refrain from intervening has anything to do with an ethic respectful of the human person is to assume what has to be proved.
I happen to believe all life is sacred, i.e. coming from, of one being with, God. An ethic of easing suffering underscores the Gospel – you know, the naked, homeless, hungry etc – and we do not hesitate to do so to God’s other creatures. The idea that our obligations to ourselves are not cosmically different is not illogical. If it is countered that of course we are different, we are above the rest, well, then, I have to say I respectfully disagree.
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.
This precisely states the essence of moral responsibility: in the former cases it would be immoral to refuse the possibility of a painless death; in the latter cases it would be immoral to allow it. There can be no single absolute over both classes here. Moral choice is always about doing what one considers right according to understanding of the circumstances and good faith conscience. Man is not God and cannot know anything absolutely. I agree that there are cases at either end of the spectrum of subjective moral certitude, and then there are others which are not so clear either way to everyone. The no-man’s land may shift a little for all of us, but we never act morally in loco omnium but by and for ourselves – that is the meaning of moral autonomy.
I could never insist that someone else should assist the painless death of anyone – it is a decision that he or she must make or not make, before the mystery of God/Life/Death. In the desert of moral decision-making I stand in the same relationship and no-one can insist that I do or do not do the same.
I think the term pro-life unfortunately means something politically specific and therefore sloganistic, so I couldn’t sign up unqualified to a statement like we must be pro-life in all circumstances. I think it risks being a throw-away line. I suspect the intended meaning could be better expressed.
Thanks for these and other reflections. Picking up on the last paragraph, I am quite isolated from the cut and thrust of torching abortion clinics and the rhetoric of “pro-life” people who seem to be quite clueless about pregnant women in such a desperate situation or terminally ill people who are not being given any other satisfactory answer. So this “pro-life” line is only a part of a complete reflection on people in whose situation we are fortunate not to be (yet).