Godelieve De Troyer was euthanised by Belgium’s ‘doctor death’ for severe depression. Her case must make us think twice about allowing assisted dying in Britain
By Dr Kevin Yuill
Editor’s note. This was written before the British House of Commons overwhelmingly rejected an assisted suicide bill and before Gov. Jerry Brown signed a physician-assisted suicide bill in California. Looking to the future the case of Godelieve De Troyer is hugely instructive.
Tom Mortier never paid much attention to the discussion about voluntary death in his country. “I was like just about anyone else here in Belgium: I didn’t care at all,” he said. “If people want to die, it’s probably their choice. It didn’t concern me.”
But in April, 2012, ten years after the law changed to allow euthanasia, Mortier, a university lecturer, received a message at work. His 64-year-old mother, Godelieve De Troyer, who suffered from severe depression, had been euthanised the previous day. Would he be able to make the arrangements at the morgue?
His mother had largely broken off contact with the family but had informed him by email three months earlier that she was looking into euthanasia. Mortier did not dream that her request would be taken seriously because she was in perfect physical health. After his mother’s death, the doctor who gave her the injection assured Mortier that he was “absolutely certain” his mother didn’t want to live anymore. The shock felt by Mortier at the sudden – and unnecessary – loss of his mother inspired him to become a leading campaigner against Belgian euthanasia law.
Disturbing as Mortier’s case is, there are many supporters of ‘assisted dying’ in the UK who insist that it is not relevant here. Dignity in Dying, a slick and well-funded advocate organization, indignantly states that Belgium and the Netherlands – where a review committee ruled that the euthanasia of 47-year-old Gaby Olthuis, who suffered from tinnitus, was “careless” – have little to do with the law now slowly pushing its way through the House of Lords. Look away, they say, from entire nations where voluntary death has been legalized a few miles from our shores; instead, look to Oregon, a little state on the Pacific coast of the United States with less than two per cent of the country’s population which has become the go-to comparison for British euthanasia advocates.
They are wrong, of course. Belgium, not Oregon, is the future of assisted dying. In the US, a national campaign prioritizes the passage of assisted dying legislation across the country (with only three states currently permitting it). No one in any of the states which already have it will campaign to have the criteria extended to those who are not terminally ill for fear that it they would jeopardize the rolling campaign elsewhere.
By contrast, advocates in the low countries have kept their foot on the pedal. The Dutch organization NVVE, which claims 155,000 members to Dignity’s 25,000, campaigns for extension of euthanasia in the Netherlands. Their goals mention “social acceptance” and “recognition of free choice for the ending of life (and assistance thereby) as a human right”. One of their initiatives was a campaign to extend the right to die to all those over 70 who are “tired of life”. The Belgian equivalent, ADMD, similarly calls for the right of all to renounce life.
Yet perhaps more important than the continuing efforts of such moral entrepreneurs is the idea that death should be offered as a medical treatment and administered by a doctor. Every country that allows assisted death – with the exception of Switzerland, where it is legal for anyone with no bad motives to assist a suicide – insists that medical staff provide it. As the UK organisation Health Professionals for Assisted Dying (HPAD) notes: “Those wanting an assisted death should be supported by their healthcare professionals to die.”
And if death is a medically-provided treatment for suffering, Belgium is surely much more humane than Oregon because it does not restrict medical treatment to selective groups of sufferers. De Troyer’s euthanasia, according to the logic of assisted dying, was the right thing to do. So is euthanising children with terminal illnesses whose parents request it, as Belgium recently allowed. Those suffering from loneliness, depression, or tinnitus, those not happy with their gender reassignment, can all find relief from their suffering with medically-facilitated death.
This is the logical end of legalized assisted dying. There is no good reason to restrict it to the terminally ill. Pain, as has been often noted, does not come in the top five reasons why Oregonians opt for an assisted death. Those with terminal illnesses take their lives for the same existential reasons as many others who are not dying.
Indeed, only an individual can decide how much he or she is suffering. It is wrong to tell people on one side of the six-months-to-live line that their suffering is profound and those on the other side that theirs is not. If we are to offer death as therapeutic medical treatment, we should, like Belgium is increasingly doing, offer the choice to all.
Some will agree, saying that, though De Troyer’s death might have been handled more sensitively, there is nothing essentially wrong with it. That was what she wanted, whatever her family’s feelings. If competent adults wish to die, why should we not help them?
Helping them is indeed the crux of the matter. If a person is determined enough to end their life, no one can stop them. But assisted dying is not really about the physical act of assistance. Those who seek an assisted death really want recognition of their suffering and moral approval for suicide.
How do we respond? If a great artist, in a fit of depression, decides to destroy his works, we recognise his right to do so but neither approve his action nor assist him; we may even stop him in the hope that he sees sense. Similarly, to pre-approve or assist in the destruction of a human life denies that it has meaning to others.
Perhaps the most chilling aspect of Mortier’s story is the casual nature of the termination of the life of a human being. His mother’s judge, jury and executioner, conveniently wrapped into one, informed her nearest and dearest in a message after the event. …
Death should not be a medical choice but a profound event to be treated with gravity, respect and sadness. That is the only way we honour the humanity in all of us. Tom Mortier’s story – and all the other disturbing stories about voluntary death in the low countries – indicate the road on which the British bill will set us if it passes. The nihilistic liberalism evident in Belgium is the future of legalised assisted dying.
This first appeared at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/assisted-dying/11381164/The-case-of-Tom-Mortier-shows-how-euthanasia-advocates-will-never-stop-at-the-terminally-ill.html