In Belgium, the term “infant(ile) euthanasia” is to be taken at face value these days. With a speed unseen in peacetime, and with an urgency that implies that the country has no other pressing problems to deal with, the Belgian parliament has legalized euthanasia for children. Apparently, these children are not wise enough to vote, but smart enough to say, without any influence or input from parents, professionals or friends, “I want to die, now”.
The political promoters spin their support by stating that euthanasia is a human right that must be free for all ages”. Although, or perhaps because, euthanasia is still quite rare in what most westerners consider “the civilized world”, these self-acclaimed visionaries see themselves as crusaders, showing the right way to all the backward peoples of the world by advancing universal ethics for all of humanity.
Rather than looking at the details of the legislation, which will describe a comprehensive set of precautions, conditions, safeguards and procedures, I have been wondering about all the “why’s” of this legislation, which is quite provocative when measured against global cultures and morals. Why now? Why first in Belgium? Why in such haste? Why at all?
As always, political expediency plays a role. In three months time we will have (the mother of all) elections and political parties want to look for votes wherever they can find them. By the same token, in those months before elections day, they choose to avoid the really important problems of society (socio-economic, constitutional, migration, budget), and advance topics that do not directly impact voters in an adverse way. Some undoubtedly must have thought that, after the almost festive, champagne-sprinkled and broadly tele-reported “pre-euthanasia” gathering for a 95-year old athlete a few weeks ago in Flanders, it was time to open the gate at the opposite end of life. Surely, it is all spun in the spirit of moral progress and with an absolute promise of banning unnecessary suffering.
While it is clear that political tactics cannot be ruled out, the ultimate cause of this initiative by self-anointed trailblazers more likely lies buried deep within our contemporary society, founded on the cradle-to-grave welfare state philosophy.
Belgium is among the richest countries in the world. It enjoys a very high per capita income, while ten million Belgians hold 250 billion Euros in their savings accounts (averaging €25000 per head). Belgium is also one of the world leaders in providing relatively cheap and high quality health care, as well as extensive social benefits to its citizens. Consequently, today the majority of inhabitants of this country are totally disconnected from what life was like, say, forty years ago and what life feels like in most other regions of Europe, let alone on the rest of the planet. We are bathing in so much unquestioned luxury, entitled to so many gratuitous services by the state and protected against most imaginable dangers by the same state, that we have become the forerunner of the species “homo sapiens egens”: the helpless man, the junkie of ubiquitous welfare, expecting deliverance from all discomfort, including deliverance from suffering, both personal and by association.
This addictive dependency on easy comfort has, amongst other behavioral changes, left its marks on how we handle pain and suffering, including impending loss of our own life and that of friends and family. The more affluent our society has become, the more it seemed to want to ban those very hurtful sensations from our experience. Unfortunately, no governmental program, no health care and no insurance coverage can easily mitigate these undesirable encounters with the darker side of life. Because constructively dealing with adversity in general has become a challenge for many citizens in the richest Welfare States, when confronted with living through the tougher problems of life, illness and death being the most undesirable, many are desperately looking for a “cure”, that should automatically (almost) restore homeostasis.
The original cure that nature itself had provided to overcome suffering was psychological and exclusively human, and (thus) humane: a personal fight of willpower against the enemies within, combined with sincere and close emotional support of an intimate group of family, tribe and friends. Since SocialMedia have nominally extended our friendship circle manifold, the practice of what I label “emoting” - often just formalized and plasticized empathizing from afar -, may have led to more physical isolation and increased emotional solitude. The therapeutic effect of close, constant and deep support and consolation has thus been replaced by the unrelenting effects of twittering chatter, probably re-emphasizing the dolorous grief, rather than fostering hope and strength for what lies ahead.
Historically speaking, the subsequent cure for pain was medication. The pharmaceutical companies have brought us - thank God or Science - a plethora of useful “killer medicines”, be they physically or psychologically active. And never before have humans swallowed more of them than in the most modern of times – here and now - anesthetizing pains and alleviating suffering. Together with traditional spiritual and psychological support, these painkillers, anti-depressants and tranquillizers constituted our entire defense arsenal in our combat with suffering throughout the twentieth century.
Today’s painkillers comprehensively kill all physical pain, effectively banning unbearable physical suffering from our lives. Apparently that was not enough for the emerging “homo sapiens egens”, for ten years ago, hesitatingly, the final “killer” solution arrived, and we called it euthanasia. It would allow adults to put a dignified end to their lives, in cases of unbearable suffering. Isn’t it strange that Switzerland and the Benelux were the first states to allow it? Why didn’t countries where the suffering from war, disease and hardship, is much more pervasive legislate this “good death” (the literal meaning of euthanasia from Greek)? Then again, why would any state really want to regulate suicide under certain conditions, and forbid it under all other circumstances (like, for example and interestingly inconsistent, unbearable psychological suffering…)? Is it really pernicious to think that some adroit politicians were trying to garner more votes now, in full view of the next election? They understand better than most that welfare state civilizations crave all kinds of “discomfort mitigation”!
Euthanasia has, meanwhile, become an alternative to a life full of pain and suffering in those cultures where individuals feel truly entitled to a carefree life of plenty, devoid of direct confrontation with adversity. Avoidance of experiencing pain, avoidance of seeing suffering, avoidance of facing family members or friends that are inescapably dying a little bit every day, it has become a by-product of human behavior in a cradle-to-grave welfare society. Consequently, if we so wish, should we indeed not be spared the dolorous emotions that accompany the ultimate struggle for life, which is death?
I am sure that, in many cultures all over the world, some individuals would commit “simple” suicide rather than fight a losing battle with a terminal disease or a debilitating affliction. It is a prerogative that, when push comes to shove, no state can take away from humans. For those that are living in an utterly spoiled society though, the more passive option for self-killing, euthanasia, being presented as the ultimate medicine (administered even by a doctor no less!), is welcomed as the preferred alternative to accepting and enduring terminal illness. Surely, it comes as no surprise that lifelong habits are hard to break.
Therefore, the magic escape that is called “euthanasia” is, in the Welfare State, the grand sublimation of the confrontation with our finality: “the state” lends citizens a helping hand, a hand that entitles them, and their close ones, to a so-called dignified parting. It is a gift, moreover, that they can vote for! Of course, how the state expects children to opt for euthanasia all by themselves, strictly on their own – i.e. without influence of parents, health workers or others that are part of the euthanasia process – remains an enigma to me. For one thing, I believe it will complicate the care and support for truly suffering children, and their parents, if only because, all of a sudden, there is a legal alternative that seems so liberating and convenient, yet so legally tedious and unnervingly slow, that it will confuse and obstruct, rather than soothe and console.
Grimburger, February 17th 2014