‘You didn’t save my life! You ruined my death!”
These are the words of Mr. Sansweet to Mr. Incredible, after the superhero forcefully prevents him from plummeting into concrete in the 2004 Pixar animation The Incredibles. Expecting to be met with gratitude, the incredulous Mr. Incredible is, instead, hit with a substantial lawsuit.
“Mr. Sansweet didn’t ask to be saved. Mr. Sansweet didn’t want to be saved. And the injuries received from Mr. Incredible’s ‘actions,’ so called, causes him daily pain!” his lawyer explains.
It’s a darkly comic scene — one that serves as a useful depiction of the increasingly fraught collision of individual rights and collective responsibilities, two starkly different definitions of “dignity,” and the divergent views about the role of the state in permitting or facilitating the deaths of citizens who elect to die.
Of course, in real-life, these situations aren’t remotely funny. They’re tragic.
On Tuesday, reports of a 17-year-old rape victim legally euthanized in the Netherlands spread far and wide. As noted by Naomi O’Leary of Politico, the facts of the case were lost in translation. Noa Pothoven was not, in fact, euthanized. Rather, she had starved herself to death in controlled circumstances, as her parents and doctors declined to force-feed her. The staff of the End of Life Clinic in The Hague “think I’m too young to die,” Pothoven explained earlier to the Dutch paper De Gelderlander. “They think I should complete the trauma treatment and that my brain must first be fully grown. That lasts until you are 21. I’m devastated because I can’t wait that long anymore.”
The clinic “spells out the narrow circumstances under which doctors ‘may provide assisted dying,’ requiring that ‘the patient makes a clear and autonomous request and is enduring unbearable and unendurable suffering,'” the Washington Post reported. But are the clinic’s provisions for assisted dying really reserved to “narrow circumstances”? “Clear and autonomous request” is the bare minimum for euthanasia to be voluntary, surely, while “unbearable and unendurable suffering” is open to interpretation. Age may have been a deciding factor in Pothoven’s case, but children as young as twelve can be legally euthanized in the Netherlands.
In her short life, Pothoven had endured horrific sexual abuse. In her award-winning autobiography, she explained that she was assaulted at the age of eleven and then raped by two men at the age of 14. After this, she developed depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anorexia. She underwent psychiatric treatment and attempted to take her own life multiple times. Pothoven told De Gelderlander of the “humiliating” and “degrading” experience of involuntary procedures.
None of this should be taken lightly. But neither should the fact that she was a deeply traumatized teenager who might have changed her mind, as teenagers often do.
One of the biggest objections to euthanasia is that, once you okay it in certain circumstances, it is very difficult to keep the gates “narrow.” Those who seek to introduce assisted dying in Britain, for instance, argue that it ought to be for adults who are terminally ill. But in other countries this position was soon after extended to those who are chronically ill, or — as we have seen in Belgium, Luxembourg, and Holland — to children. Besides, what about the mentally ill? Or those who, after some tragedy or trauma like Pothoven, want to call it quits?
Critics often dismiss this “slippery slope” argument, suggesting that it is overwrought. It isn’t. But to be fair, it is — or at least it should be — a secondary point. The primary objection to euthanasia is philosophical, not pragmatic: Absolute autonomy is not sufficient as a justification for state-sponsored suicide, because every member of society is inexorably connected. And so, when a given member desires to kill herself, much is at stake for all of us in how we respond.
When we resign ourselves to the view that some young rape victims might be better off dead, precisely because they perceive that they would be better off dead, it becomes difficult if not impossible to make the case for any objective value to human life. The crucial work conducted by suicide-prevention charities — ironically, advertised in many reports on Pothoven — are severely undermined.
Again, Pothoven was not euthanized per se. She was allowed to die at home by starvation. But her case relates to this ethical dilemma nonetheless. Pothoven described herself as a “mental-illness warrior.” Her autobiography was entitled Win or Learn. But what did Dutch society “win or learn” from her death? Death isn’t winning. Death is losing everything. It’s dreadful to think what similarly situated young women might think upon learning about this tragedy. Someone should have saved Pothoven’s life. Yes, even if that meant ruining her death.