The experience of Belgium, which legalised assisted suicide more than a decade ago, is a stark warning, writes Lori Anderson
When I was a child, my father would pretend to smother me with a plastic bag in a game I thought the most tremendous fun. I don’t know when it started, probably when I was seven or eight, but whenever a plastic bag was brought into the house which carried the label “Keep away from children. Danger of asphyxiation”, he would pounce like an intrepid Cato to my Inspector Clouseau. After the comic tussle, we would both dissolve into fits of laughter.
It is a tribute to the defence mechanism within the human mind that sometimes the bleakest subjects can conjure up the happiest memories, but there are those for whom the asphyxiation to be found within a plastic bag is not a danger to be avoided, or the subject of a silly game, but a tragic desire to be actively sought.
Euthanasia has preyed on my mind for the past week, ever since I read about the latest figures from Belgium, where physician-assisted suicide was first legalised in 2002. In the past year, there has been a 25 per cent rise to 1,432, with 2 per cent – or one death in 50 in the country – now the result of euthanasia. The assorted people behind the statistics were illuminated by the tragic case of Nathan Verhelst, a 44-year-old man, who was physically in perfect health but had for years endured emotional pain. Born a girl called Nancy, he later had a sex-change operation that made him, in his own eyes, a “monster”. He gave an insight into his miserable childhood in an interview, saying: “I was the girl that nobody wanted. While my brothers were celebrated, I got a storage room above the garage as a bedroom. ‘If only you had been a boy,’ my mother complained. I was tolerated, nothing more.”
Under Belgian law, candidates for euthanasia have to be over 18 and demonstrate “constant and unbearable physical or psychological pain” resulting from an “accident or incurable illness”. The physician who ended Verhelst’s life, Dr Wim Distelmans, said he had undergone six months of counselling prior to his fatal injection, which was administered a fortnight ago. He explained: “The choice of Nathan Verhelst has nothing to do with fatigue of life. There are other factors that meant he was in a situation with incurable, unbearable suffering. Unbearable suffering for euthanasia can be both physical and psychological. This was a case that clearly met the conditions demanded by the law.”
The Belgian state was also supportive of the decision of 45-year-old identical twins Marc and Eddy Verbessem to end their lives. The pair were deaf and had lived and worked together as cobblers, communicating to each other and their immediate family with their own, unique sign language. When told they had glaucoma that would make them go blind, the fear of never being able to see or communicate with one another and the devastating consequences of a new disability that would make them dependent on others for the first time was unacceptable to them. While their local doctor refused to assist their request, they were treated more sympathetically by Dr David Dufour, at the Brussels University Hospital. Before Christmas, having bought new shoes and suits, the twins said farewell to their parents and brother, who were in the room with them and died by lethal injection. Dufour said: “It was a relief to see the end of their suffering. They had a cup of coffee in the hall, it went well and a rich conversation. The separation from their parents and brother was very serene and beautiful.” He added: “There was a little wave of their hands and then they were gone.”
The subject of assisted suicide can send my mind off in an endless loop, a bleak, grey carousel of skeleton horses with black satin reins that goes round and round and throws me up and down and offers no easy way off. I can see the argument in support of euthanasia, for if a loved one was in terrible pain with no hope of recovery, is it right to deny them their last wish, to say no, that what they are suffering, has to be borne until their body gives out? If someone has locked-in syndrome, where their body has become a prison from which we can’t even hear them scream, is it right that we insist they serve another 20, 30, 40 years before nature’s eventual release?
Last week, Father Hans Kung, the Swiss Catholic priest and liberal theologian, who was stripped of his licence to teach at Catholic institutions by the Vatican for his heretical views, announced in his new book that he was considering assisted suicide. At the age of 85 and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, he said: “I will not continue to exist as a shadow of myself…Man has a right to die when he sees no more hope of a human life according to his own best understanding.”
In a previous book, Dying with Dignity, Kung had argued that voluntary euthanasia could be a moral choice. He said: “As a Christian and theologian I am convinced that the all-merciful God, who has given men and women freedom and responsibility for their lives, has also left dying people the responsibility for making a conscientious decision about the manner and time of their deaths… There should be no compulsion to die but there should be no compulsion to live either.”
Perhaps, but I disagree with the involvement of the government. My fear is that a society which opens the door to euthanasia can unwittingly put a gentle, well-meaning hand on the back of the suffering, the frightened, the distressed and depressed and push them forward while whispering: “Well, there is one option.” It is the law of unintended consequences and I’m curious to know if Belgium parliamentarians, when introducing euthanasia, pictured relatively healthy, middle-aged men lying down to die with a doctor by their side. Tragically, such deaths occur in all countries; men and women who feel all hope is lost will kill themselves, but the state shouldn’t say: “Let me tighten the noose and kick away the chair”. I believe the state should always say: “How can we help you to cope?”