Comment Magazine

The truth assisted suicide supporters won’t face

MPs will debate a Bill legalising assisted suicide in Britain on September 11 (PA)

Two months ago a 24-year-old Belgian woman was granted the “right to die”. Identified only as Laura, the woman was not terminally ill but was suffering from clinical depression and had decided: “Life, that’s not for me.”

Laura had entertained suicidal thoughts all her life. When she was six she had handled a loaded gun and imagined what it would be like to kill herself. Eighteen years later, instead of making plans for the future, she was arranging her own funeral. She told a local newspaper: “Death feels to me not as a choice. If I had a choice, I would choose a bearable life. But I have tried everything [else] and that was unsuccessful.”

When Rob Marris MP presents his Assisted Dying Bill in the House of Commons next week, we can be confident of two things: he won’t mention Laura, or other victims of Europe’s creeping euthanasia culture, and he will urge MPs to consider Oregon’s experience instead.

He will refer to the American state because his Bill is closely modelled on the law there. Oregon permits assisted suicide – the prescription of lethal drugs which must be self-administered – but it does not allow doctor-administered euthanasia (unlike the Netherlands and Belgium).

Dismissing the evidence from European jurisdictions is politically expedient for supporters of the Bill. But the facts cannot be ignored. After all, Britain arguably has more in common with a country like the Netherlands – a highly urbanised, former maritime trading nation – than with a mountainous US state with a population of four million.

We have a lot in common with Belgium, too: a parliamentary democracy just across the North Sea. We can’t plausibly dismiss Belgium’s “assisted dying” experiment as irrelevant to Britain.

For outsiders, Belgium conjures up idyllic images of city breaks, delicious beers and quaint chocolate shops. We also think of Brussels, home of the European Union, and defender of peace and civilisation across a once warring continent. But beneath this civilised veneer lurks barbarism: the country permits euthanasia not only for the depressed, but also for the anorexic, the deaf and even children.

The average Briton weighing up their views on “assisted dying” – the term preferred by supporters of the practice – may not even be aware of the situation in our closest European neighbours. The BBC’s flagship news programmes aren’t as generous with their coverage of euthanasia horror stories as they are with the personal struggles of “right to die” campaigners – and that’s putting it charitably.

Since legalising assisted suicide and euthanasia in 2002 – 18 years after the Netherlands – Belgium has overtaken its neighbour in the total number of deaths. Bet­ween 2009 and 2013, annual deaths more than doubled from 822 to 1,803.

One study even concluded that euthanasia is under-reported by approximately 50 per cent and that 1,000 patients a year have their lives ended without an explicit request.

An increasing number of those opting for euthanasia are like Laura. In 2010, 4.3 per cent of deaths by euthanasia in Belgium were for neuropsychiatric disorders. By 2013 this had increased to nearly
10 per cent.

It is often said that “one death is a tragedy but a million deaths is just a statistic”. It’s easy to read all the figures from Belgium without flinching.

But Rachel Aviv of The New Yorker recently took one of the statistics and uncovered the shocking story behind it. She looked into the case of Godelieva De Troyer, a beautiful Belgian woman who was killed by a lethal injection administered by Dr Wim Distelmans, the country’s foremost euthanasia doctor.

Aviv reported that Godelieva had attended therapy sessions since she was 19 following a troubled relationship with her parents. She married young and was determined not to repeat the mistakes of her mother and father when she raised her own children. But she eventually divorced her husband, who killed himself two years later.

The happiest time of Godelieva’s life was when she began a new romance in her early fifties. But when that broke down in 2010 she became seriously depressed and her relationship with her son, Tom, deteriorated. In the summer of 2011, when she was 63, Godelieva attended a lecture by Distelmans. In September she began visiting him at his clinic. Four months later she emailed her children telling them she had filed a euthanasia request.

Tom was not on speaking terms with his mother by then. He showed the email to a doctor who was familiar with Distelmans’s work and who reassured him that “there was no way that Distelmans would approve the euthanasia request without first speaking to the patient’s family”. Tom did not intervene because of this advice.

Three months later he received a brief posthumous letter from his mother, announcing that she had been euthanised in a Brussels hospital.

“Tom felt his mind shutting down,” Aviv wrote. “He drove to his mother’s house, which he hadn’t visited in more than a year… In the drawer of Godelieva’s bedroom desk, Tom found drafts of several farewell letters that she had written to friends… There was also a draft of a long letter to her children, which was far more emotional than the one she had sent.

“‘I have not been able to handle the rift with you, Tom,’ she wrote. ‘I have loved you very much but you have not seen it as such.’ She then addressed her three grandchildren: ‘I have missed you very much.’”

Aviv noted that “Godelieva had died with three photographs in her pocket: a picture of her holding Tom on her lap when he was a baby, a picture of her feeding one of Tom’s young daughters ice cream, and a photograph of her and her daughter walking together through a field.”

Godelieva’s case is not an isolated one. Distelmans has performed euthanasia on two deaf twins who had discovered they were going blind. He also ended the life of Nathan Verhelst, born Nancy, a 44-year-old who wanted to die after undergoing a sex change operation. From the moment she was born, Verhelst felt rejected by her mother. She carried this weight all her life and the best support on offer was a lethal injection.

(After Verhelst’s death her mother commented: “For me this chapter is closed. Her death does not bother me. I feel no sorrow, do doubt or remorse… When I first saw Nancy my dream was shattered. She was so ugly. I had a ghost birth.”)

Yet deeply disturbing tales from abroad will not be enough to persuade some parliamentarians about the dangers of licensing assisted death. MPs who are still considering how to vote should reflect on what daily life would be like in England and Wales if the law is changed.

Supporters of the Marris Bill have a simply staggering faith in human nature and bureaucratic institutions. In a decade that has uncovered the horrors of Rochdale, Rotherham, Baby P, Stafford Hospital and Jimmy Savile, their confidence in our health and social services to spot signs
of abuse, neglect and coercion is extraordinary.

I once asked a nurse how a relative who was lying with a catheter in a high dependency unit was doing. With the emotional intelligence of an alien she responded: “Don’t worry! She’s been p—ing for England!”

The same relative was on a general ward a few days earlier. As she felt increasingly ill, she mustered the strength to find a nurse and told her: “I think I’m going to die before morning.” The nurse coldly told her to go back to bed. It was only thanks to a doctor friend’s intervention that her life was saved.

Do advocates of a change in the law honestly believe that if assisted death is legalised lazy, sulky nurses would become Florence Nightingales overnight? That hospitals would be run like five-star hotels, with a patient’s every dying wish meticulously catered for?

And how would humans really respond to a change in the law? Rob Marris recently claimed that there is “no evidence” that sick people in Oregon feel under pressure to end their lives. But an average 40 per cent of those who apply for assisted suicide there cite “not wanting to be a burden” as a main reason for doing so. In Britain, where independence is so highly valued, the elderly already worry that they are a burden on their relatives. In fact, it’s rare to find an old person who doesn’t feel that way. The legalisation of assisted suicide would make the sick and the elderly feel even more guilty about living.

We in Britain also know from experience that once the appetite for social change is whetted with new laws, it soon becomes insatiable. The leap from civil partnerships to the legalisation of gay marriage tells us a lot about the pace of political change in this country. Or consider abortion: supporters pushed for a change in the law in 1967 in order, they said, to end backstreet abortions. Today, abortion is seen as an everyday healthcare option. More than six million abortions have been performed since 1967 and campaigners are still hungry for further liberalisation.

Belgium has seen precisely this sort of political creep. As Rachel Aviv explained in The New Yorker: “Euthanasia for psychiatric patients was rare in the early years of the law, but patients complained that they were being unfairly stigmatised: psychic suffering, they argued, was just as unbearable as physical pain. Like cancer patients, they were subjected to futile treatments that diminished their quality of life.”

The British are sincere champions of the underdog. Once assisted suicide becomes available for the terminally ill, how can we reasonably stop there? Patients with the same conditions as Tony Nicklinson or Paul Lamb – two high-profile cases used to push for a change the law – would require euthanasia rather than assisted suicide, as neither man could physically administer the dosage for himself. “Assisted dying” would only be the prologue to euthanasia. Demands for “equal death” would inevitably follow.

But what about the supposedly humanitarian case for assisted suicide? People often ask opponents of the practice: “Who are you to tell a patient that they must suffer for longer than they want to?” That’s a fair question. But we ought to turn it around and say to assisted suicide advocates: “Who are you to encourage a sick person to kill themselves?”

A lot more is at stake when MPs debate the Marris Bill on September 11 than whether each of us has a right to end our lives with medical assistance. The cultural shift would be utterly devastating.

Consider the news story last month about a man who was about to jump off a bridge in Dublin before a teenager asked: “Are you OK?” With three words, he saved the man’s life.

The new Bill assumes that we live in a vacuum, without friends, without family and, ultimately, without hope. If MPs vote to change the law, a country that once believed that encouraging another person to commit suicide was a serious offence would overnight become a place which greets the desperate, tragic act with a resigned shrug.

Margaret Thatcher was harshly criticised, especially by the Left, when she uttered her much misunderstood phrase “there’s no such thing as society”. Prescribing suicide as a remedy for suffering is a crushing victory for the aggressive individualism so many claim to detest.

If the Marris Bill becomes law, we will cease to be a society in any meaningful sense of the word – only a collection of individuals who wash our hands of people like Laura.

Madeleine Teahan is associate editor of the Catholic Herald

This article first appeared in the print edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (2/9/15).

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