Euthanasia: judging other people’s lives

By Deborah Gyapong

Canadian Catholic News

GATINEAU, Que. (CCN) — A Dutch journalist and author supported euthanasia when the Netherlands first debated it, but changed his mind after his partner became disabled.

Gerbert van Loenen told the Euthanasia Symposium 2014 here Oct. 4 his partner had brain surgery in 1996 that left him crippled, and confused. His personality changed. “I loved him nevertheless,” van Loenen told participants at the conference organized by the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.

When he began hearing people saying his partner was “better off dead,” and other remarks showing evidence “living with a disability was seen as a choice, not a plight,” he began to question his initial support for euthanasia.

His partner’s plight revealed to him how the Dutch law giving the right to demand an end to a life had become confounded “with a right to judge the lives of others.”

Van Loenen eventually wrote a book: “He would have been better off dead. Judging other peoples’ lives.”

The Netherlands has changed considerably since legalizing euthanasia more than two decades ago, and so has the way the Dutch cope with suffering, said van Loenen, who served from 2006-2014, as deputy-editor-in-chief of the Dutch daily newspaper Trouw.

The debate started 30 years ago and focused on the classic cases, the obvious and easy examples of people at end of life experiencing terrible suffering, consciously choosing to end their lives, he said.

Because of the value put on autonomy, someone who was suffering should have a right to decide whether to live or die and a physician should have the legal right to help them, is how the argument went, he explained.

But once the limit of “thou shalt not kill” has been passed, Dutch society is now trying to find other limits, he said. The rate of people choosing to die by euthanasia, usually at home, has increased by about 15 per cent a year. Almost every Dutch family has been touched by the euthanasia of a relative, he said.

“If you can accept suffering can be alleviated by terminating a patient’s life, it’s hard to find the limits,” he warned.

Now if a competent person is allowed assisted suicide or euthanasia to mitigate severe suffering, then why shouldn’t someone who is mentally incompetent not have the right to be relieved of their suffering, he said.

About 3.5 per cent of deaths in Holland involve euthanasia and most cases are reported, he said. Most involve cancer patients. In 2010, however, about 300 patients were terminated without their having made a request. In 2005, the Netherlands added severely suffering newborns to the category of those who could be euthanized. Now there are arguments to add severely suffering children from ages 1-12.

Van Loenen noted that Dutch social services are lavish and good supports are provided for the disabled. But there is a growing view that “some are so handicapped” and “unable to develop themselves” that their lives are not worth living.

“We seem to have lost the sense of equality that allows us to accept forms of life that seem to be pointless,” he said.

Now people are seeking to die who have psychiatric disorders, who have lived passed 70 years of age and while healthy are tired of living, he said.

Most Dutch, however, support the euthanasia law and there is little debate. The original advocates of euthanasia came out of the Protestant community, “something to do with Calvinist individualism,” he said.

Though the Catholic bishops did oppose the bill, the one-third of Dutch society that is Catholic largely supports the practice.

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