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Belgium became the second country in the world after its neighbour, the
Netherlands, to legalise euthanasia. Over the next decade our country
has become a living laboratory for radical social change. With many
other countries debating legalisation at the moment, now is a good
moment to stand back and take a good long look at the results.
Belgium was governed by a coalition of Liberals and Social Democrats.
The slightly more conservative Christian Democrats had been excluded.
With blue as the colour of the Liberals and red of the left-leaning
Social Democrats, the press dubbed it the Purple coalition.
Christian Democrats took a dim view of euthanasia, but they were in
opposition. The Purple coalition was free to pass a euthanasia law based
on the view that an individual should always have a “free choice” to
end his life. In absolutizing individual self-determination the left and
the right found common ground.
states that doctors can help patients to die when they freely express a
wish to die because they are suffering intractable and unbearable pain.
The patient needs to consult a second independent doctor; for
non-terminal illnesses an independent psychiatrist must approve. In
practice, however, this independence is irrelevant. Belgium is a small
country and compliant doctors are easy to find.
A string of
recent cases leaves no doubt that the euthanasia law has fundamentally
and drastically changed Belgian society. Last year 45-year-old deaf
identical twin brothers who couldn’t bear the thought of going blind
were granted euthanasia. Doctors granted their request because they “had nothing to live for” anyway. According to the doctor who gave the lethal injection it was not “such a big deal”.
In another case, a 44-year-old woman with chronic anorexia nervosa was euthanased. Then a 64-year-old woman suffering
from chronic depression was euthanased without informing her relatives.
The doctors defended their decisions by explaining that these extreme
and exceptional cases were legitimate because all legal conditions were
is hardening from a medical option into an ideology. Belgium’s
euthanasia doctors even believe they are being humane because they are
liberating people from their misery. Fundamentalist humanists go further
and describe euthanasia as the ultimate act of self-determination. The
opinion of the patient’s family has no weight whatsoever. A doctor is
entitled to give the mother of a family a lethal injection without
offering any explanation to her children. Euthanasia is being promoted
as a “beautiful” and
positive way to die. Doctors are transplanting organs from patients who
die in the operation. (This is said to make their lives meaningful.) The law may soon allow children and patients with dementia to be euthanased.
opponents of the law (like us) have been marginalised as rigid and
heartless conservatives who feel ill at ease in a post-modern,
pluralistic and progressive society like Belgium.(1) The
Christian Democrats have repudiated their traditional values and support
the law. Questioning it has become taboo because the absolute right of
the individual might be violated.
Herman De Dijn
There are still some significant critics, apart from the Catholic Church. The Belgian philosopher Herman De Dijn is
an outspoken opponent. He describes Belgium as a “sentimentalist
society” in which traditional values have been drastically minimized and
replaced by subjective preferences. (2) A sentimentalistsociety
no longer subscribes to ethical values other than those which are
related to the search for individual happiness (autonomy and no-harm).
Communal responsibilities and moral institutions are being discarded in
the search for purely individual well-being; interdependence and
connectedness are ignored.
feels that this is the nub of the problem. A human being is not a bundle
of individual feelings, opinions and preferences, but part of a
species, a member of mankind, a vital link in the moral ecology where
every individual has a unique symbolic value. Respect for human dignity
includes not only respect for personal choices but also for
connectedness to loved ones and society.
of the euthanasia regime repudiate this secular critique -- as well as
the baneful influence of the Catholic Church. (3) However, their
ideology of absolute self-determination has become so strong that it is
morphing into a theology, a quasi-religious fanaticism. They have
invented comforting symbols and rituals to express their beliefs. A
self-determination card describes a patient’s final wishes so that the
social services know what to do in a terminal illness. There are centres
where people can ask questions about how euthanasia can be performed.
There is indoctrination in self-determination for doctors and volunteers
who wear their euthanasia enabler certificates as badges of honour.
we are hopeful. Surely it must be possible to convince the Belgian
public that something is terribly, terribly wrong when politicians are
debating whether parents can legally have their children put down. It is
not humane and it is not scientific. There is no scientific scale of
unbearable suffering. With advances in pain relief, euthanasia is not
insight of the green movement is that all living beings are
interconnected – even us humans. Especially us humans. The job of
politicians is to protect this connectedness. Otherwise,
why should parents care for their dependent children? Why should
children care for dependent parents? Once we lose the sense that each of
us is bound to one another with invisible cords of fellowship, we will
end by killing all those who are burdens on society. And at some stage,
all of us are going to be burdens.
does not threaten religious dogmas. Churches will stay open no matter
what happens in hospitals and nursing homes. What is threatened is
humanism. Instead of standing strong, arms linked together as brothers
and sisters, the dogma of self-determination separates us, places us in
bubbles of isolation, and then offers to kill us – if we want.
In today’s Belgium all of us are at risk.
Tom Mortier and Steven Bieseman teach in Leuven University College, in Belgium. They would
like to thank Emeritus Professor Herman De Dijn for valuable
discussions and Sylvia Statz for advice about translating the text.
(1) Burms A. and De Dijn H., De sacraliteit van leven en dood, Pelckmans Uitgeverij nv, Kalmthout, (2011), S. 71-89.
(2) De Dijn H., Taboes, monsters en loterijen, Uitgeverij Pelckmans, Kapellen (2003), S. 23-25.
(3) Burms A. and De Dijn H., De sacraliteit van leven en dood, Pelckmans Uitgeverij nv, Kalmthout, (2011), S. 91-99.