I spoke at a town-hall event about end-of-life care recently that, unfortunately, devolved mostly into an intense debate on assisted suicide. When the time came for audience questions, a self-described “mentally ill” woman took the microphone and strongly declared that she too should have the right to doctor-prescribed death. More than half the audience applauded, validating the woman’s potential suicide.
Ten years ago, supporting suicide for the mentally ill would have been unthinkable, even among hardcore Hemlock Society types. Now, alas, giving approval — or shrugging indifferently — to all manner of suicidal desires is becoming increasingly common. Indeed, you probably didn’t know that Sept. 10, 2011, was “World Suicide Prevention Day,” it received such scant media attention.
Why the change from an anti-suicide culture to one that is, at minimum, suicide-tolerant? I am convinced that, at least in part, the assisted-suicide movement has eroded society’s commitment to suicide prevention. It has created an atmosphere where many people now see “dead” as better than “dying” and suicide as a valid remedy for the debilitations caused by serious illness, disability, or being frail, elderly, “tired of life,” or chronically — or even, as I have seen, mentally — ill. Indeed, rarely a day goes by without some story implicitly or explicitly supporting assisted suicide as “death with dignity” or a compassionate response to the problem of human suffering.
So far, the U.S. has mostly resisted the siren song of legalizing assisted suicide. But that is not cause for complacency. Assisted-suicide advocates never tire of offering the hemlock. And we mustn’t forget that during the 1990s, Jack Kevorkian assisted the suicides of mostly depressed, disabled people to general societal applause.
This is cause for great worry, for, once a society embraces doctor prescribed death as an acceptable answer to human suffering or as some kind of fundamental liberty right, there are no brakes. We need only look to European countries that have gone down the Euthanasia Highway to see how society is impacted deleteriously by accepting killing as a suitable answer to the problem of human suffering.
The Dutch trailblazed societal acceptance of euthanasia beginning in 1973, when a judge ruled that, if doctors followed certain guidelines when committing euthanasia, such as repeated death requests and acting lethally only when there is no other way to control suffering, they should not be punished. This led to an ever-expanding category of people receiving doctor-administered death, even before formal legalization by the Dutch parliament in 2001.
Since that fateful court ruling, Dutch doctors have gone from euthanizing the terminally ill to the chronically ill, to people with serious disabilities, to the emotionally and mentally ill (the last approved by the Dutch supreme court when it refused to punish a psychiatrist for assisting the suicide of a woman distraught over the deaths of her two children). Moreover, Dutch doctors murder infants born with serious disabilities or terminal conditions. Such euthanasia killings remain felonious under Dutch law, but the law goes almost wholly unenforced. Indeed, doctors at the Groningen University Hospital were so emboldened by the Dutch acceptance of infanticide that they published “The Groningen Protocol,” a bureaucratic checklist for deciding which babies qualify for euthanasia, in a range of journals, including The New England Journal of Medicine.
All of the above is bad news, but also relatively old news. More recent events in the Netherlands show that the ever-expanding Dutch euthanasia license set into motion in 1973 shows no indication of slowing down.