New Yorker article finds unusual scapegoat for euthanasia in Belgium: Secular humanists

Euthanasia has gotten some pretty uncritical treatment from the media, especially the month-long media drama last fall involving 29-year-old Bethany ­­­Maynard. Her decision to short-circuit an almost-certain agonizing death via brain cancer by deciding to kill herself beforehand kept the nation enthralled for weeks, especially when she seemed to back off from her resolution near the end. But she did the deed last Nov. 1, her target date.

What went untold there -- and in many euthanasia narratives before that -- was something of the devastation felt by the nearest of kin.

Which is why this New Yorker piece on Godelieva De Troyer, a Belgian woman who did not have a terminal illness but chose to die nevertheless, is the exception.

The story first goes into De Troyer’s lifelong battles with depression, which was abetted when her husband committed suicide, leaving her a single parent with two small children. She struggled along, finding comfort in a new boyfriend for a time, but then losing him and also losing the affection of her daughter, who had moved to Africa and wished no contact with her. What remained was a son, who was married with two children. It is this son, named Tom, that the article spends much time on.

Belgium had passed a law in 2002 that allows euthanasia for those who have an incurable illness that causes them unbearable physical or mental suffering. (It also allows euthanasia for incurably ill children and a law allowing euthanasia for dementia is also in the works.) When De Troyer turned 63, she met Wim Distelmans, a doctor who was a proponent of that law. One thing led to another and in late 2011, she told her children she’d filed a euthanasia request with her doctor. Neither took her seriously, so they were shocked to learn the following April that she had indeed killed herself. The son found a note from her saying that after 40 years of unsuccessful therapy for her depression, she was done.

At this point, the article slips into theology:

In Belgium, euthanasia is embraced as an emblem of enlightenment and progress, a sign that the country has extricated itself from its Catholic, patriarchal roots. Distelmans, who was brought up as a Catholic and then rejected the Church, told me that his work is inspired by an aversion to all forms of paternalism. “Who am I to convince patients that they have to suffer longer than they want?” he said.

No religion ghost here. A few paragraphs later, it adds this:

In the past five years, the number of euthanasia and assisted-suicide deaths in the Netherlands has doubled, and in Belgium it has increased by more than a hundred and fifty per cent. Although most of the Belgian patients had cancer, people have also been euthanized because they had autism, anorexia, borderline personality disorder, chronic-fatigue syndrome, partial paralysis, blindness coupled with deafness, and manic depression. In 2013, Wim Distelmans euthanized a forty-four-year-old transgender man, Nathan Verhelst, because Verhelst was devastated by the failure of his sex-change surgeries; he said that he felt like a monster when he looked in the mirror. “Farewell, everybody,” Verhelst said from his hospital bed, seconds before receiving a lethal injection.

Then comes an amazing twist for a secular publication: The piece then links euthanasia to secular humanism and Freemasonry:

The right to a dignified death is viewed as an accomplishment of secular humanism, one of seven belief systems that are officially recognized by the government. Belgian humanism, which was deeply influenced by the nineteenth-century Freemasonry movement, offered an outlet for those who felt oppressed by the Church, but it has increasingly come to resemble the kind of institution that it once defined itself against. Since 1981, the Belgian government has paid for “humanist counselors,” the secular equivalent of clergy, to provide moral guidance in hospitals, prisons, and the armed forces. Humanist values are also taught in state schools, in a course called non-confessional ethics, which is taken by secular children from first through twelfth grade, while religious students pursue theological studies. The course emphasizes autonomy, free inquiry, democracy, and an ethics based on reason and science, not on revelation.

In all the articles I’ve seen in the secular press on euthanasia, none that I know of had laid the blame for it at the feet of secular humanists. The New Yorker piece goes on to talk about the limited about of effective psychotherapy for depressed Belgians; how the national mood seems to be OK with allowing people to kill themselves if they so desire and that quality of life was a good barometer of whether or not to continue living. The piece then swings back into theology by quoting a psychiatry professor who:

…believes that the country’s approach to suicide reflects a crisis of nihilism created by the rapid secularization of Flemish culture in the past thirty years. Euthanasia became a humanist solution to a humanist dilemma. “What is life worth when there is no God?” he said. “What is life worth when I am not successful?” … 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.” When he gives lectures, he tries to appeal to Christian audiences by saying, “If Jesus were here, I think he would help these people.”

The author then quotes a Catholic source who takes issue with whether Jesus would help euthanize people and the article bounces back and forth between those who believe euthanasia is a moral question requiring a moral response -- and those who do not. There are some amazing factoids the author digs up, such as Distelman’s recent study tour to Auschwitz to contemplate existential pain and ways to end it.

Near the end, it explains that in the aforementioned non-confessional ethics course required in in Belgian schools, children as young as 8 are prepped to accept euthanasia as natural. The piece does such a good job of explaining of what sort of society the lack of religious belief may create and leaves the reader with the feeling of how ghastly this Belgian Brave New World may be.

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