Politics & Policy

Life and Death with Dignity

(Kristo – Gothard Hunor/Dreamstime)
Dying with dignity does not mean taking one’s own life prematurely.

‘I don’t believe in exploiting vulnerable people at their weakest moments and pushing them to choose death.”

Tom Mortier is not having an academic discussion. He is talking about his mother.

Last fall, many of us got to know a beautiful young woman named Brittany Maynard, who, diagnosed with brain cancer, moved from California to Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal, and took her own life on November 1.

People magazine introduced many Americans to her; in fact, it was from a People tweet that I learned about her death.

These were propaganda pieces. Moving, heartbreaking propaganda pieces. The assisted-suicide movement uses words like “mercy” and “dignity.” But that is a lie. It’s a lie that takes away from us the most precious gift we have: life.

With a cloud of darkness plaguing her, Godelieva De Troyer, Tom Mortier’s mother, believed the lie, too. “She was influenced by the ideology of the doctor, who had no interest in helping a very sad woman and who believed that killing her was the only ‘cure’ for her grief,” Mortier, a Belgian university lecturer, tells me.

“My mother was very vulnerable. She always looked up to psychiatrists and other people with ‘power.’ My mother went to a psychiatrist for many years. After the break-up with her last boyfriend, she ended up in a deep depression once again. She lost confidence in her psychiatrist, and she became suicidal. She felt that she had nothing to live for any more.”

His mother was heavily influenced by, and eventually killed by, oncologist Wim Distelmans, a euthanasia activist, Mortier explains. Distelmans is so popular in Belgium that Mortier found a brochure about one of his events in the backpack of his eight-year-old daughter. “Distelmans is a little bit like a rock star in Flanders,” Mortier tells me, and his mother came to “adore” him. “She became ‘trapped’ in this cultish ideology of ‘absolute free choice,’” he says.

Mortier paints a bleak portrait of life in Belgium, calling it a “suicidal country, with seven people committing suicide a day” — a suicide rate half again as high as the United States’. By a vote of parliament last year, the euthanasia of children is even legal there. Meanwhile, reports from the Netherlands this month point to a surge in euthanasia there, especially for the mentally ill.

Euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide, Mortier says, open a “Pandora’s box”: “When you kill a vulnerable person with depression, what’s next? Who’s next? You only need to find a doctor who wants to kill, and he’ll do it. And why is a doctor more morally privileged to kill than anyone else? People need care and attention from doctors, not to be poisoned to death.”

Long gone are the days of “First, do no harm.” As Mortier puts it: “To let someone die in physical and/or mental pain is bad medicine. But intentionally killing someone has nothing to do with medicine, but propagating a culture of death.” With so much death and destruction in the news — from Ferguson, to the siege at the Lindt Chocolate Café in Sydney, to the shootings of the New York policemen, to Charlie Hebdo, to Nigeria under the wrath of Boko Haram and Syria and Iraq under the brutal hand of the Islamic State — do we really want it to be the protocol in doctors’ offices to have an exit button available to anyone who might be sad or scared?

“Everyone will become a vulnerable person at some stage in their lives, and we should prepare ourselves to face the inevitable questions about life and death during our brief time in this world,” Mortier says. “I can say with certainty that the answer to these questions is never to create laws that allow doctors to kill on demand.”

Americans, he says, “should look to what has happened here, not only to my mother, but throughout Belgium, as a warning.”

“Be aware that the same arguments first applied to the elderly and terminally ill, and then those in physical or emotional pain, have recently been used to extend euthanasia to children,” he says. “An even more chilling argument in favor of killing children is that doctors were already killing children illegally, so the law needed to be amended to make it legal. This is the bizarre world we have created. Instead of prosecuting child-killing doctors, we are proposing that their acts be protected by law and that children should be killed upon request.”

In recent days — notably, on the cover of People magazine ten weeks after her death — Brittany Maynard’s husband has been talking about “the suffering and torment” that was lifted “the day she died,” leaving her surrounded by a “ring of love.” That ring included a lobbyist. Her life — even in her death — has been co-opted by a campaign doubling down on death. Not dignity. Not mercy. Not freedom. Death. The advocacy group Compassion and Choices, which has pushed out Maynard’s story, describes her as a “game-changing advocate.” Thirteen states and the District of Columbia are currently considering going in the direction of Oregon. The story of Tom Mortier’s mother, however, makes clear that this is not a game. It’s a grave danger.

Mortier has filed papers with the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that Belgium needs to protect its innocent citizens, providing evidence that his depressed mother essentially paid Distelmans to kill her. After her doctor of over 20 years refused, she made a donation to an organization Distelmans co-founded, and he went through with her death. He was never notified by Distelmans before it was too late, and she never discussed it with her son; he found out by phone that she had been killed on account of her depression.

Lizz Lovett is a “sister, wife, mom of four” with advanced, incurable kidney cancer. “I live in Oregon, where it would be legal for me to end my life, but I can’t do that,” she says in a YouTube video. “The moment we label suicide an act of dignity, we imply that people like me are undignified for not ending my life,” she warns, “or worse: a costly burden for society.”

“What a lonely, uncharitable, and fake world we live in if we think it is somehow undignified to let people see us suffer — to love us and care for us to the end,” she says. “Cancer may take my life, but I’m going to live until I die. That’s dignity.”

“A story’s end changes the meaning of every page,” Lovett, says, adding: “My life isn’t mine to take, it’s mine to give. Love is dignity. I’m facing death with dignity.”

How will our story end? Will we continue to treat a Brittany, a Godelieva, or a Lizz like burdens, or will we treasure every last moment with love? Do we choose life or surrender to a culture of death?

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.

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