On April 20, 2012, Tom De Troyer received a letter from his mother Godelieva de Troyer in the past tense. It told him she had been euthanized on April 19 at a university hospital and left him the number of a friend who had the keys to her house. His parents had divorced when he was 3. His father, a radiologist, committed suicide when he was 5. His relationship with his mother was troubled and intense. In childhood he had been the shoulder she leaned upon. In adulthood he struggled to balance his need to be a good and happy father and husband with his mother’s struggles with depression.
When he drove to her house, he saw the photos of his children, her grandchildren, on the wall. He found the letters she wrote, to friends, to colleagues, and to him: “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.” She also wrote, before crossing it out, “I will not see my grandchildren grow up and that causes me pain.”
The New Yorker has published a most extraordinary story of life under Belgium’s relatively new right-to-die regime — where people ask a doctor to assist in their death for any reason, including mental suffering.
The right to die seamlessly and quickly morphed into the right to kill.
For some reason — it is telling — most of these deaths are not actually suicides. Able-bodied people typically choose to have a doctor kill them, rather than off themselves. The right to die seamlessly and quickly morphed into the right to kill.
A family doctor, who does it eight or ten times a year, describes what it is like for him:
the process of performing euthanasia . . . is “very magical.” But he sometimes worries about how his own values might influence a patient’s decision to die or to live. “Depending on communication techniques, I might lead a patient one way or the other,” he said. In the days before and after the procedure, he finds it difficult to sleep. “You spend seven years studying to be a doctor, and all they do is teach you how to get people well — and then you do the opposite,” he told me. “I am afraid of the power that I have in that moment.”
The power to kill. The power to make the difference between life and death.
At a seminal dramatic moment, Tom confronts the doctor who performed the euthanasia:
“They sat at a conference table, and [the doctor, Wim] Distelmans explained that he never rushes his decisions. He said that he had urged Godelieva to contact her children, but that she had not wanted to inform them. He asked Tom why he had scheduled the meeting.
“Because you killed my mother,” Tom replied.
Distelmans responded calmly that it was Godelieva’s “absolute wish” to die.
Tom said that his mother’s “absolute wish” was also to be a good grandmother. He had brought some of her papers and letters, and he began reading from the draft of her suicide letter to him and his sister. “I feel frustration and sadness because I have not been able to build a connection,” he read. Then he showed them an apology letter that he had written to his mother when he was twenty, after one of many fights. “Forgive me,” he read. “You have dealt with the worst. . . . You care about me. I am not living up to your expectations. That hurts. I don’t know how to deal with that.”
Distelmans was silent. “He was very cool, very distant,” Bieseman said. “He didn’t seem to be touched.”
When Tom saw that his reading had elicited no response, he pushed his chair back from the table and stood up. [Tom’s colleague Steven] Bieseman recalled, “He was screaming, ‘You went along with the madness of my mother! You went along with her tunnel vision, her defeatism. You’ve just taken away the suffering of one person and transposed it to another!’”
Distelmans repeated that he was certain that Godelieva had wanted to die, and that this was her right. Then he said that it seemed there was nothing left to discuss. They all stood up and shook hands, and Tom and Bieseman left the clinic.
Right now 13 percent of Belgian euthanasias are for people who are not dying. Each of them is celebrated in the secular media as demonstrating “courage.” The heroes of death who inflict it on themselves. They rid us of our need for compassion, for suffering with.
Dirk De Wachter, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Leuven and the president of the ethics commission for the university’s psychiatric center, agrees that the current conversation reflects the hole created by the collapse of a Christian view of the world.
“What is life worth when there is no God?” he said. “What is life worth when I am not successful?”
He told The New Yorker of the many patients who tell him, “I am an autonomous decision-maker. I can decide how long I live. When I think my life is not worth living anymore, I must decide.”
He recently approved the euthanasia of a 25-year-old woman with borderline personality disorder who did not “suffer from depression in the psychiatric sense of the word,” he said. “It was more existential; it was impossible for her to have a goal in this life.”
The New Yorker goes on: “De Wachter told me, ‘I don’t want to kill people — I don’t think psychiatrists should kill people — but when the suffering is so extreme we cannot look the other way.’ He tries to appeal to Christian audiences by saying, ‘If Jesus were here, I think he would help these people.’”
When the idea that every human life is sacred, that we possess something of transcendent value that the world cannot degrade or diminish — what then?
At a private dinner party on whether “social conservatism,” as many of the core values of the old Western civilization are now called, has a place in the public square, I was struck by how another brilliant mind summarized:
“People naturally will do different things. We need culture defenders who will fight for religious liberty. We need culture-engagers to speak to the ‘mushy middle.’ And we need more culture creators to sing our own songs and tell our own stories.”
So let me end unconventionally with a lyric, the defense of the wordless:
They kill your mom in Belgium,
They don’t mean to, but they do;
Oh, only coz she wanted it
So bad, they say. (So blue).
Don’t rapists chat a bit like that?
Ah yes, I think they do.
In Belgium doctors do the deed
And pound it into you:
“I gave your Mom the right to die.”
You little man, look in my eye:
The price of your affection
Was a lethal interjection.
They kill your mom in Belgium
And inform you rather late;
There is no chance to say good-bye
Or even, “Mama, wait!”
“I gave a gift: the right to die
(a triumph of the will)”
A tidy nod, a handshake —
So you take the right to kill.
The kids are sad, but they’ll forget
Why nana’s not around
It’s others left with questions, here
Where answers can’t be found.
Like whippoorwills they whisper
in a ghostly little trill:
The never weres, the never will
My death alone will kill.