In Belgium, the term “infant(ile)
euthanasia” is to be taken at face value these days. With a speed unseen in
peacetime, and with an urgency that implies that the country has no other
pressing problems to deal with, the Belgian parliament has legalized euthanasia
for children. Apparently, these children are not wise enough to vote, but smart
enough to say, without any influence or input from parents, professionals or
friends, “I want to die, now”.
The political promoters spin their support
by stating that euthanasia is a human right that must be free for all ages”.
Although, or perhaps because, euthanasia is still quite rare in what most
westerners consider “the civilized world”, these self-acclaimed visionaries see
themselves as crusaders, showing the right way to all the backward peoples of
the world by advancing universal ethics for all of humanity.
Rather than looking at the details of the
legislation, which will describe a comprehensive set of precautions,
conditions, safeguards and procedures, I have been wondering about all the
“why’s” of this legislation, which is quite provocative when measured against
global cultures and morals. Why now? Why first in Belgium? Why in such haste?
Why at all?
As always, political expediency plays a
role. In three months time we will have (the mother of all) elections and
political parties want to look for votes wherever they can find them. By the
same token, in those months before elections day, they choose to avoid the really
important problems of society (socio-economic, constitutional, migration,
budget), and advance topics that do not directly impact voters in an adverse
way. Some undoubtedly must have thought that, after the almost festive, champagne-sprinkled
and broadly tele-reported “pre-euthanasia” gathering for a 95-year old athlete
a few weeks ago in Flanders, it was time to open the gate at the opposite end
of life. Surely, it is all spun in the spirit of moral progress and with an absolute
promise of banning unnecessary suffering.
While it is clear that political tactics cannot
be ruled out, the ultimate cause of this initiative by self-anointed
trailblazers more likely lies buried deep within our contemporary society, founded
on the cradle-to-grave welfare state philosophy.
Belgium is among the richest countries in
the world. It enjoys a very high per capita income, while ten million Belgians
hold 250 billion Euros in their savings accounts (averaging €25000 per head).
Belgium is also one of the world leaders in providing relatively cheap and high
quality health care, as well as extensive social benefits to its citizens. Consequently,
today the majority of inhabitants of this country are totally disconnected from
what life was like, say, forty years ago and what life feels like in most other
regions of Europe, let alone on the rest of the planet. We are bathing in so
much unquestioned luxury, entitled to so many gratuitous services by the state
and protected against most imaginable dangers by the same state, that we have
become the forerunner of the species “homo sapiens egens”: the helpless man, the
junkie of ubiquitous welfare, expecting deliverance from all discomfort,
including deliverance from suffering, both personal and by association.
This addictive dependency on easy comfort has,
amongst other behavioral changes, left its marks on how we handle pain and
suffering, including impending loss of our own life and that of friends and family.
The more affluent our society has become, the more it seemed to want to ban those
very hurtful sensations from our experience. Unfortunately, no governmental
program, no health care and no insurance coverage can easily mitigate these undesirable
encounters with the darker side of life. Because constructively dealing with
adversity in general has become a challenge for many citizens in the richest
Welfare States, when confronted with living through the tougher problems of
life, illness and death being the most undesirable, many are desperately looking
for a “cure”, that should automatically (almost) restore homeostasis.
The original cure that nature itself had
provided to overcome suffering was psychological and exclusively human, and
(thus) humane: a personal fight of willpower against the enemies within,
combined with sincere and close emotional support of an intimate group of family,
tribe and friends. Since SocialMedia have nominally extended our friendship
circle manifold, the practice of what I label
“emoting” – often just formalized and plasticized empathizing from afar
-, may have led to more physical isolation and increased emotional solitude. The
therapeutic effect of close, constant and deep support and consolation has thus
been replaced by the unrelenting effects of twittering chatter, probably re-emphasizing
the dolorous grief, rather than fostering hope and strength for what lies
Historically speaking, the subsequent cure
for pain was medication. The pharmaceutical companies have brought us – thank
God or Science – a plethora of useful “killer medicines”, be they physically or
psychologically active. And never before have humans swallowed more of them
than in the most modern of times – here and now – anesthetizing pains and
alleviating suffering. Together with traditional spiritual and psychological
support, these painkillers, anti-depressants and tranquillizers constituted our
entire defense arsenal in our combat with suffering throughout the twentieth
Today’s painkillers comprehensively kill
all physical pain, effectively banning unbearable physical suffering from our
lives. Apparently that was not enough for the emerging “homo sapiens egens”,
for ten years ago, hesitatingly, the final “killer” solution arrived, and we
called it euthanasia. It would allow adults to put a dignified end to their
lives, in cases of unbearable suffering. Isn’t it strange that Switzerland and
the Benelux were the first states to allow it? Why didn’t countries where the
suffering from war, disease and hardship, is much more pervasive legislate this
“good death” (the literal meaning of euthanasia from Greek)? Then again, why
would any state really want to regulate suicide under certain conditions, and
forbid it under all other circumstances (like, for example and interestingly
inconsistent, unbearable psychological suffering…)? Is it really pernicious to
think that some adroit politicians were trying to garner more votes now, in full
view of the next election? They understand better than most that welfare state
civilizations crave all kinds of “discomfort mitigation”!
Euthanasia has, meanwhile, become an
alternative to a life full of pain and suffering in those cultures where individuals
feel truly entitled to a carefree life of plenty, devoid of direct
confrontation with adversity. Avoidance of experiencing pain, avoidance of
seeing suffering, avoidance of facing family members or friends that are inescapably
dying a little bit every day, it has
become a by-product of human behavior in a cradle-to-grave welfare society. Consequently,
if we so wish, should we indeed not be spared the dolorous emotions that
accompany the ultimate struggle for life, which is death?
I am sure that, in many cultures all over
the world, some individuals would commit “simple” suicide rather than fight a
losing battle with a terminal disease or a debilitating affliction. It is a
prerogative that, when push comes to shove, no state can take away from humans.
For those that are living in an utterly spoiled society though, the more
passive option for self-killing, euthanasia, being presented as the ultimate
medicine (administered even by a doctor no less!), is welcomed as the preferred
alternative to accepting and enduring terminal illness. Surely, it comes as no
surprise that lifelong habits are hard to break.
Therefore, the magic escape that is called
“euthanasia” is, in the Welfare State, the grand sublimation of the confrontation
with our finality: “the state” lends citizens a helping hand, a hand that
entitles them, and their close ones, to a so-called dignified parting. It is a
gift, moreover, that they can vote for! Of course, how the state expects
children to opt for euthanasia all by themselves, strictly on their own – i.e.
without influence of parents, health workers or others that are part of the
euthanasia process – remains an enigma to me. For one thing, I believe it will
complicate the care and support for truly suffering children, and their parents,
if only because, all of a sudden, there is a legal alternative that seems so liberating
and convenient, yet so legally tedious and unnervingly slow, that it will confuse
and obstruct, rather than soothe and console.
Grimburger, February 17th 2014