Human Exceptionalism

The Hard, Cold, Awful Reality of Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide

A story just published in the UK’s Guardian is a diary account of the euthanasia death of Mieneke Weide-Boelkes, a woman with brain cancer, written by her son Marc Weide, who made it public. As such, and because it is so awful, it seemed to me that frank comment was warranted. I sent it off to First Things, and they put it up on the site.

But I want to reproduce my comments here, too. The story of Weide-Boelkes’ euthanasia amply demonstrates the abandonment that assisted suicide/euthanasia consciousness generates in society, within medicine, and among families. And it proves clearly that the “protective guidelines” are utterly meaningless. It also demonstrates that once mercy killing is sanctioned, families become almost remote bystanders.

To cases: One of the supposed requirements of Dutch euthanasia is that there can be no other way to alleviate suffering other than killing the patient. Yet, in this actual case, the woman who would soon be dead wants to die for fear of going bald during life-extending chemotherapy: From the story:

The prognosis is she could live another year if she undergoes chemotherapy. But she won’t. “I’m not going to go bald,” she says. “I don’t want people saying, ‘How sad, that beautiful hair all gone.’ Never.”

Despite the ability to extend Weide-Boelkes’ life, and the driving motives of worries that she will not be pretty (and hence not worthy of being loved?), and fears about losing the ability to engage in enjoyable activities as the reasons for wanting euthanasia, the doctor agrees to kill.

And here are two things so often seen in euthanasia/assisted suicide cases that are reported publicly: We have created a “choice” culture so pervasive that even in the face of impending killing families feel they are not entitled to resist their loved one’s desire to be made dead. Second, the fear of the future from the patient–precisely what happens in Oregon with assisted suicide–is what most often leads to the killing, not the actual experience of unalleviable pain and suffering:

The doctor says euthanasia can take place next week. Another doctor first needs to verify, though, that Mum cannot be cured, that her wish to die has been consistent, and that her suffering is unbearable.

Martin is convinced of the first two conditions but not of the third. If Mum is too energetic to stay in bed, then how is her suffering unbearable? Mum puts her coffee down. “Well, I have to die anyway, don’t I?” Then she asks us what we think.

I interrupt: “It should be your own decision. None of us is to say anything.” But Mum struggles to say she wants to die. Eventually I say, “I think what she finds unbearable is not so much her pain and sickness, but the fear of it getting worse and of losing control.” When Martin is finally satisfied that Mum wants to end it, he agrees to contact the second doctor. He leaves with an empathetic nod to us all.

None of us is to say anything! And yet he did! I couldn’t believe my eyes: Weide, not his mother, found the words to justify the euthanasia. When she asked what the family thought, where were their kisses? Where were the assurances of always being there for her? Where were the phone calls to doctors to assure the patient her suffering could be alleviated through palliative care. Where were the efforts to obtain proper mental health interventions to help alleviate the woman’s terror of the future? Instead, a terrified woman was left to sink or swim in the midst of an emotional crisis! I know we are not supposed to “judge” in these matters, but what an abdication of a son’s responsibility to his mother–what I call terminal nonjudgmentalism in action.

On the day she dies, she vacuums the house!

I can hear she is hoisting the vacuum cleaner up to the attic. It is just after 6am. It is the start of an increasingly mad day, during which Mum hoovers the whole house and does six loads of washing (one of which consists of a single white shirt). She scrapes all the woodwork on the outside of the house clear of moss and cleans the windows.

After breakfast, I find Dad fuming after Mum has given him grief for not ironing fast enough. I ask him if it helps to see her as a mental patient instead of his wife. He grumbles. I think of what was said the night before, about Mum’s relative physical fitness and her obsession with material objects and cleanliness. I feel an increasing tension as the day progresses and I still don’t know whether it is going to be Mum’s last.

Even the doctor pushes through hesitancy on the part of the patient.6.15pm:

The doctor arrives shortly after the scene with the toilets. Mum greets him, then disappears upstairs, saying, “Best let me potter for a bit.” Nobody sees her for another 20 minutes.

“Does it happen at all that people pull out at the last minute?” I ask. “Yes,” Martin says. “Quite often I go home again and a new appointment is made. But in many cases the patient passes away between visits.”

When Mum comes back, listing things she has put in bags and boxes, Martin gently interrupts her: “Can I just ask you something? Is there still a lot you feel you need to do?”

“Yes,” she says, “I mean no. I’m just nervous.”

“I can always come back later if you are not ready,” says the doctor.

Mum sits down and listens to the doctor. Then she takes a deep breath and says, “OK. I am ready.” At 7pm, with my father, brother and me around her bed as well as Martin, who has given her the injection, Mum goes to sleep.

This is beyond awful. Euthanasia leads to the most profound abandonment of frightened and suffering people.

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