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Euthanasia on trial

What does it mean to die with dignity?

Artillery Row

Perhaps we should take our cue from the Queen, the epitome of gracious composure. As dignified in death as in life. But we can’t all have a state funeral, white horses and the rest.  

For some, death is messy and painful. It’s one of sparingly few things left in life that we don’t control at the click of a button. The great equaliser. As inevitable as taxes. It illuminates our mortality; not only that we must die, but that we are not lords of our own destiny.  

We’re not used to laying down our autonomy like that anymore. 

Advocates of euthanasia or “assisted suicide” legalisation say we can take back that control. That autonomy over death in the form of “assisted suicide” restores dignity. That with the right “safeguards”, rights can be protected while lives are ended. 

But a landmark case at the European Court of Human Rights tomorrow could call this into serious question. 

Tom’s mother was physically healthy

Tom Mortier, a Belgian university lecturer, hadn’t been particularly concerned about his country’s liberal euthanasia laws before. If a person wanted to die, who was he to stop them? That was until his wife received a life-shattering phone call. The caller was from a hospital, letting her know that they needed to take care of Tom’s mother’s affairs since she had been euthanized.  

Belgian law specifies that the person must be in a “medically futile condition of constant and unbearable physical or mental suffering that cannot be alleviated, resulting from a serious and incurable disorder caused by illness or accident.

Tom’s mother was physically healthy, and her treating psychiatrist of more than 20 years had expressed doubts that she satisfied the legal requirements under Belgian law. Doctors knew that she was struggling with depression, in part because of distance from family members. And yet when she refused to reach out to those family members, they quickly concluded her suffering was incurable. By this logic, almost anything could be considered incurable.  

Nonetheless, she was euthanized in 2012 by an oncologist with no known psychiatric qualifications.  

To add controversy upon controversy, the same doctor who euthanized Tom’s mother co-chairs the Federal Commission which reviews euthanasia cases to ensure the law has been respected. He also leads a pro-euthanasia organization which received a donation from Tom Mortier’s mother in the weeks preceding her death. Despite all this, according to the Belgian government, the Federal Commission voted “unanimously” to approve the euthanasia in this case.  

Tom didn’t get dignity. He got little more than a phone call

Mortier v. Belgium has been pending before the Court for years. It challenges the claim that “safeguards” can protect human rights when it comes to the legalization of euthanasia. Belgium has been basing its law on this claim for over twenty years. According to  data from Belgian authorities, over 27,000 people have died from euthanasia in Belgium since then. In a chilling example of the “slippery slope” hypothesis, updates to the law have seen Belgium become the first and only country in the world to have no lower age limit enforced for children. In 2021, almost one in five euthanised in Belgium were not expected to die naturally in the immediate future.  

“Dignity” is a word banded about too frequently by the pro-euthanasia lobby. One is meant to find “dignity” in choosing to end their lives.   

Tom didn’t get dignity. He got little more than a phone call. 

Tom’s mum didn’t get dignity either. She was rushed through the system with barely a consideration. Her mental health had clearly led her to a place where she wanted to stop living. She wasn’t given the opportunity to see the beauty of life again. The doctor didn’t help her try and overcome her situation.   

There’s nothing progressive about a society who encourages or helps the weak and vulnerable to end their lives.  

Restoring dignity isn’t about death. It’s about life.  It’s about supporting those in need with investment in good counselling and if appropriate, good palliative care to ensure the best comfort and support at the end of life. Tom’s mother might be just one case. But it’s one case too many. And who knows how many others in Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada and elsewhere have been nodded through a faulty system, to the devastation of family members like Tom and to the injustice of a life worth saving.

Dignity is about respecting the human person  even our own human bodies — in their vulnerability. It’s about caring for each other when we’re in need of help to keep going. 

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