January 8th 2005

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: DEMOCRACY: How free societies perish

EDITORIAL: New direction in Aboriginal policy

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: The bubble economy - can it last?

AGRICULTURE: Getting rural policy on track

LIVESTOCK: 18,100 livestock farmers gone

OPINION: Post-Latham: now for a real Third Way

AUSTRALIA'S CONSTITUTION: The Governor-General is our head of state

LIFE AND FAITH: The quest for meaning in James McAuley

STRAWS IN THE WIND: La Ronde / A quarry and a hard place / National politics / Maritime terrorism

OBITUARY: Vale Pat Edward Conway (1932-2004)

EUTHANASIA: Continent Death: Euthanasia in Europe

Left's educational legacy (letter)

BOOKS: HUMAN DIGNITY IN THE BIOTECH CENTURY: A Christian vision for public policy

BOOKS: TREASON: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism, by Ann Coulter

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Continent Death: Euthanasia in Europe

by Wesley J. Smith

News Weekly, January 8, 2005
Too many people think with their hearts instead of their brains. Wanting the world to suit their desires, when faced with hard truths to the contrary, they refuse to face facts they don't want to believe. This common human failing has a name: self-delusion.

Self-delusion is rampant in the euthanasia movement. Most proponents recognise that it is inherently dangerous to legalise killing. But they desperately want to believe that they can control the grim reaper. Thus, they continue to peddle the nonsense that "guidelines will protect against abuse" despite overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary.

Euthanasia has been around long enough and practised sufficiently enough for us to detect a pattern. Killing is sold to the public as a last resort, justified only in cases where nothing else can be done to alleviate suffering. But once the reaper is allowed through the door, the categories of killable people expand steadily toward the acceptance of death on demand.


The classic example is the Netherlands, where doctors have been allowed to euthanase patients since 1973. Dutch death regulations require that euthanasia be strictly limited to the sickest patients, for whom nothing but extermination will alleviate overwhelming suffering - a concept in Dutch law known as force majeure.

But once mercy-killing was redefined as being good in a few cases rather than being bad in all circumstances, it didn't take long for the protective guidelines to be viewed widely as impediments to be overcome instead of important protections to be obeyed.

Thus, supposedly ironclad protections against abuse - such as the doctrine of force majeure and the stipulation that patient give multiple requests for euthanasia - quickly ceased meaningfully to constrain mercy-killing.

As a consequence, Dutch doctors now legally kill terminally ill people who ask for it, chronically ill people who ask for it, disabled people who ask for it, and depressed people who ask for it.

Euthanasia has also entered the paediatric wards, where eugenic infanticide has become common even though babies cannot ask to be killed.

According to a 1997 study published in the British medical journal The Lancet, approximately 8 per cent of all Dutch infant deaths result from lethal injections. The babies deemed killable are often disabled and thus are thought not to have a "livable life." The practice has become so common that 45 per cent of neonatologists and 31 per cent of paediatricians who responded to Lancet surveys had killed babies.

It gets worse: Repeated studies sponsored by the Dutch government have found that doctors kill approximately 1,000 patients each year who have not asked for euthanasia. This is not only a violation of every guideline, but an act that Dutch law considers murder. Non-voluntary euthanasia has become so common that it even has a name: "Termination without request or consent".

Despite this carnage, Dutch doctors are very rarely prosecuted for such crimes, and the few that are brought to court are usually exonerated. More-over, even if a doctor is found guilty, he or she is almost never punished in any meaningful way, nor does the doctor face discipline by the Dutch Medical Society.

For example, in 2001, a doctor was convicted of murdering an 84-year-old patient who had not asked to be killed. Prosecutors demanded a nine-month suspended probation (!), yet even this brush - it can't even be called a slap - on the wrist was rejected by the trial judge who refused to impose any punishment. Not to worry. The appellate court decided to get tough: it imposed a one-week suspended sentence on the doctor for murder.

Even such praising with faint damnation isn't enough for the Dutch Medical Association. As a result of this and the handful of other non-punished murder convictions of doctors who engaged in termination without request or consent, the organisation is lobbying to legalise non-voluntary euthanasia.

Along these same lines - and demonstrating that the culture of death recognises no limits - the day after the Dutch formally legalised euthanasia, the country's minister of health advocated the provision of suicide pills to the elderly who do not qualify for killing under Dutch law.

Lest we think the Dutch experience is a fluke, let us now turn our attention to Belgium. Only one year ago, the Belgians legalised Dutch-style euthanasia under "strict" guidelines.

As with the Netherlands, once unfettered, the euthanasia culture quickly began to swallow Belgium whole. Moreover, the slide down the slope has occurred at a greatly accelerated pace. It took decades for Dutch euthanasia to reach the current morass. But Belgian euthanasia went off the rails from day one: The very first reported killing - that of a man with multiple sclerosis - violated the legal guidelines (not that anything was done about it).

Moreover, while 203 people were officially recognised as having been euthanised in Belgium during the first year of legal practice, most euthanasia deaths were not reported (a violation of the law). The actual toll is probably closer to 1,000.

And Belgian euthanasia advocates have already begun agitating to expand the categories of killable people. A just-completed forum attended by hundreds of Belgian doctors and euthanasia enthusiasts advocated that minors be allowed to request euthanasia, as well as people with degenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer's, who are not imminently dying.

Not only that, but the chairman of the conference wants to force doctors to participate in killing patients, even if they are morally opposed. If he gets his way, the law will soon require doctors who oppose euthanasia to refer patients who want to be killed to a colleague willing to do the deed. So much for choice.

The Swiss have also unleashed the culture of death into their midst. Rather than authorising doctors to commit euthanasia, however, Swiss law instead permits private suicide facilitation. As a result, Switzerland has become a destination for "suicide tourists" who travel there not to ski, but to receive a poison cocktail.

A private group that goes by the name "Dignitas" facilitates most Swiss assisted suicides. Its founder, lawyer Ludwig Minelli, recently told the Swiss press that he will not restrict Dignitas's dark work to providing services to the dying.

Indeed, the report said Minelli believes that "severe depression can be irreversible and that he is justified" in helping "the mentally ill" to die. Along these lines, a Swiss doctor is being investigated for possible prosecution for the double suicide of French twins with schizophrenia.

That may sound like a serious effort to crack down on abuse, but remember, once euthanasia is legitimised, such talk is often cheap. If the Dutch experience is any indication, even if the suicide doctor is convicted, he will not be meaningfully punished.

Despite this history, euthanasia advocates here and abroad still cling irrationally to the hubristic and foolish notion that they are competent to administer death. They remind one of Dr Frankenstein, who, in the name of benefiting mankind, unleashed a terrible monster.

  • Wesley J. Smith is an American lawyer and award-winning author on bioethical issues. His most recent book is Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World (Encounter Books, 2004). This article first appeared in the US magazine, National Review, December 23, 2003, and is reproduced with the author's kind permission.

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