A misguided act of mercy for the few has become a right for the many
No one could deny that Aurelia Brouwers was a troubled young woman. Dogged by mental illness from an early age, she entered adulthood suicidal. She spent nearly three years in a psychiatric institution as a result and also served two-and-half years in prison for arson. She suffered from depression, anxiety and eating problems, and had a borderline personality disorder. She would also mutilate and burn herself, which left her in constant pain and prone to continuous infections.
Last September, Aurelia spent nearly two days in intensive care after yet another attempt to take her own life. Three months later, she finally obtained what she was really seeking: doctors and a psychologist agreed that she met the criteria for euthanasia in the Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide Act. After learning of their decision on New Year’s Eve, Aurelia waited just over three weeks for the day, on January 26, when she received a series of injections. The final one stopped her heart beating.
Her suffering was over, but so was her life, and this tragic 29-year-old from a remote village in the eastern Netherlands became the latest case of a proliferating number of euthanasia deaths for “unbearable” and “hopeless” psychiatric reasons.
She is thought to be the second abuse victim to have died in this way in as many years. The first known case also involved a Dutch woman in her 20s who suffered abuse as a child and was suicidal and self-harming after enduring 15 years of post-traumatic stress disorder, anorexia, flashbacks, hallucinations, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and mood swings.
Aurelia’s death by euthanasia was based on a highly contentious interpretation of a law passed principally to alleviate agony in patients with cancer and other terminal and incurable diseases – the sort of cases that assisted dying advocates in Britain often propose as examples to demonstrate why laws which prohibit assisted dying should be changed.
But critics argue that in just 16 years the Netherlands has hurtled with such alacrity down the slippery slope that euthanasia today seems accessible to anyone capable of arguing convincingly that their lives have become an irredeemably unbearable mess.
Take the case of Mark Langedijk, a 41-year-old father of two, who was granted his wish to die by euthanasia after he spent the previous eight years battling against an alcohol addiction which wrecked his marriage and put him in hospital and rehabilitation centres 21 times.
The account of his death appears horrifyingly casual, with his journalist brother, Marcel, later recalling in Linda, a Dutch magazine, how the pair sat in their parents’ garden in Overijssel in the hours beforehand, where they joked, smoked, ate sandwiches, and drank beer and wine.
The doctor who carried out the euthanasia was a woman under 40 who arrived wearing white trainers and a black skirt. Mark flirted with her, according to his brother, and even suggested they might go on a date if he survived.
As he drained his wine glass of the last few drops, the doctor proposed that they proceed with the euthanasia. “Shall we?” she said. In different circumstances, it might have sounded as if she was inviting him to dance.
As euthanasia cases for mental illness and addiction have quadrupled in just four years with the normalisation of the procedure, it has become clear that not all are hard cases.
One study, carried out by the US National Institutes of Health, discovered that the majority of people who requested euthanasia for essentially psychiatric reasons were simply complaining of loneliness or social isolation. Many of these bereaved, miserable or elderly people would shop around until they found a physician who would grant them what they wanted. A culture of euthanasia is changing the procedure from the misplaced gesture of compassion accorded to the few into a right accessible to the many.
According to Cardinal Willem Eijk, the Archbishop of Utrecht, it was the simple act of changing the law to allow doctors to kill which set in motion such changes. “If we put the door ajar it will open in the end, and that is what we are seeing,” he says. “The problem is our present culture and it is hyper-individualistic so the dignity of life is not viewed as a universal value for all human beings, but I myself am the only one who can judge the value of my own life, I am the only one who can see that. That is so radical in our country. We are so extremely individualistic that, for many people, they can’t conceive any more that there is a universal dignity.”
For Catholics like Cardinal Eijk, the value of life was set in stone in the Decalogue, the core expression of the natural moral law written on every human heart. St John Paul II observed that the Ten Commandments served to “safeguard the good of the person, the image of God, by protecting his goods” and “represent the basic condition for love of neighbour”.
The negative precept prohibiting intentional killing protects the weakest and most vulnerable in society. When it is undermined, the value of such lives suddenly seems to be negotiable. So in the Low Countries, the right to die has been extended to cover people who do not wish to live with a disability but who are by no means dying.
Dutch police recently opened the first investigation into a death by euthanasia. It involved an elderly woman with dementia who had previously consented to die and was drugged by a doctor and then, as she struggled, pinned down by her family while she was injected with lethal drugs.
It would be optimistic to interpret the intervention of the authorities as a sign that the Netherlands is coming to its senses, but it does indicate a certain frustration over their ability to regulate the practice. The forcible euthanasia of old women was surely never in the minds of those well-meaning, albeit misguided, legislators 16 years ago.
The effective regulation of euthanasia today looks a near impossibility, especially given the demands of an aggressive and organised movement which actively seeks further liberalisation. That was the conclusion of Professor Theo Boer, who resigned as a regulator in 2014 after expressing the view that he had been “terribly wrong” to think that euthanasia in the Netherlands could be controlled.
British law forbidding assisted suicide and euthanasia “provides the better safeguards against unwanted consequences”, Professor Boer said at the time. “So think hard before making a law that may lead to unknown and irreversible consequences.”
Yet sections of the British media continue to promote assisted suicide relentlessly. The BBC seems to cover a new “right to die challenge to Britain’s laws” every week, always with the utmost sympathy, while the Economist has long abandoned the pretence of objectivity. When its current editor-in-chief Zanny Minton Beddoes was appointed in 2015, the magazine launched a high-profile campaign for assisted suicide that has exasperated some long-standing readers. “Competent adults are allowed to make other momentous, irrevocable choices: to undergo a sex change or to have an abortion,” it argued in a leading article. “People deserve the same control over their own death.” The Economist’s relentless insistence on absolute personal autonomy prompted Charles Moore to call the editors “choice fundamentalists”.
But none of this advocacy has swayed Britain’s law-makers. The last attempt to introduce assisted suicide, in 2015, was handily defeated, by 330 votes to 118. This was the first vote on the issue for almost 20 years and it showed that opinion among MPs had barely changed. In 2015, 74 per cent of MPs voted against the bill, compared with 72 per cent back in 1997.
But we in Britain can be certain that the forces of assisted suicide have not been defeated. They are merely regrouping – and that is why we need to pay attention to what is happening across the North Sea.
Simon Caldwell is a freelance journalist
This article first appeared in the March 2nd 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here