Anyone involved in the euthanasia debate in this country should watch a recently released YouTube film about the work of EXIT ADMD, a Swiss association which helps French-speaking Swiss residents to die. As Michael Cook describes it in his article on Saturday, it is about the “mysticism” of Swiss-assisted suicide and it is all the more powerful and persuasive because of it.
Unlike films about euthanasia made by the BBC in this country, there is nothing overtly strident or polemical about this film: no angry or agonised relations, no silent demonstrations outside Parliament, no interventions from pressure groups. It simply shows the work of the “accompagnateurs”, the escorts, of those individuals – they have to be suffering from an incurable illness, not merely depression – who have chosen to die. They cannot be related to the patient, nor can they benefit financially by their work. It is described by the president of the association, Dr Jerome Sobel, as a “vocation”. In a sense, they see themselves as angels of death.
The film raises two important questions: how do people who have no faith display instinctive religious feeling in a post-Christian world? And how do you distinguish this genuine compassion from Christian compassion? Philosopher and writer Alain de Botton has tried to interest people in his “church for atheists”; he has not without attracted many takers, understandably, as the idea is too abstract, too eccentric. But death isn’t abstract at all – especially when you are living on your own and slowly dying. EXIT ADMD understands this; they know death is a huge event and they take it very seriously, even reverently.
In an extraordinary shot of a meeting of the association, seated around a U-shaped table, as if they are participating in a strangely secularised Last Supper, Sobel tells the escorts that they “are no longer volunteers but priests.” They, and the relations or friends involved in the patient’s last minutes, see their behaviour as a gesture of love. The phrase used is always “self-deliverance”, never “suicide.” As one young man explains, “Suicide is inhuman”; self-deliverance is “different”. It cleverly avoids the connotations of violence or shame; just as the prayer of the Our Father has the phrase “deliver us from evil”, “self-deliverance” can be seen as being liberated from another kind of evil, that of dying alone, in pain – and without dignity.
None of the escorts interviewed spoke of having a formal religious faith – but they all used religious language. Two attractive, sensitive and personable female escorts are filmed going for a hike together. They reminisce about their “vocation”, reminding each other that they no longer fear death themselves as they believe “the spirit is eternally alive”. When we watch Dr Sobel himself prepare the lethal drink for his patient, Micheline, he tells her, in quasi-liturgical language to “drink this potion to the last drop”; as she does so he tells her comfortingly, “Have a good journey… May the light guide you… May it lead you to peace.”
You can’t argue against the sincerity of those who have chosen to be “escorts”. As Sobel explains to them during the “Last Supper” shot, demand for euthanasia far exceeds their numbers and their capacity to help. Revealingly, he appeals to them, “We have to rest between two missions… We have to recharge our batteries.” He admits that what they do is exceptional and that he is “exhausted” every time. Watching him with Micheline in her dying moments reveals his own emotional involvement. It is obvious why the work is exhausting.
Significantly, the film did not discuss other solutions to the single spectre at this spectacle which, it strikes me, is silently in the background behind the demand for euthanasia: the very natural fear of being alone, especially when you are at the extreme limits of vulnerability. We live in an anatomised society in the West; Micheline, alone in her flat day after day and growing weaker, represents many people – including many elderly people who are dying of loneliness rather than disease. Micheline’s friend, at whose apartment she plans to die, tells Sobel that, “She can’t bear being on her own here all day. That’s no life.”
Such a comment gives rise to my final thought: just as pro-life societies such as LIFE, realise that to care for the unborn child you have to care for the mother as well, throughout her pregnancy and after, those involved in anti-euthanasia pressure groups need to offer solace and companionship to those who have lost the will to live. Otherwise, as our critics point out, we are not really accompanying the dying (to translate the French word “accompagnateur”) in the way a Christian community should. We have to be prepared for the slow march of the secularised rites of death shown in this film and counter them vigorously with our Christian faith in the love of God, who alone knows when our time on earth is coming to an end.
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