Normalizing nihilism: Euthanasia in Holland

It has been almost ten years since the Dutch parliament voted to legalize euthanasia.  While the Netherlands became the first country to grant state sanction to a mercy killing, doctors the world over have long quietly colluded in the “good death” of the terminally ill or those in extreme suffering.  The BBC reported that the 1 April 2002 — April Fool’s Day — law set the following parameters for Dutch mercy killings:

Patients must face a future of unbearable, interminable suffering

Request to die must be voluntary and well-considered

Doctor and patient must be convinced there is no other solution

A second medical opinion must be obtained and life must be ended in a medically appropriate way

The patient facing incapacitation may leave a written agreement to their death

However, the march of progress has not stopped here.  Last month the Daily Caller reported that the Dutch Medical Association sought to “expand the definition of who may qualify for assisted suicide — including for the first time such nonmedical factors as loneliness and financial struggles.”  The article entitled “Netherlands looks to expand euthanasia grounds to include lonely, poor” printed by Washington-based news website stated:

“Many older people have various afflictions that are not actually life-threatening but do make them vulnerable,” wrote the KNMG in a ten-year study report published in October.

“Vulnerability stems not only from health problems and the ensuing limitations, but also the measure in which people have social skills, financial resources and a social network. Vulnerability has an impact on quality of life and on prospects for recovery, and can lead to unbearable and lasting suffering.”

Prior to publishing the study results, the KNMG polled its members online. More than 68 percent agreed with the statement that doctors should be “permitted to factor in vulnerability, loss of function, confinement to bed, loneliness, humiliation and loss of dignity” when determining whether a patient is a good candidate for euthanasia.

This was followed by an article in the 7 Dec 2011 issue of the Telegraph that reported the Dutch government was considering allowing doctors to kill patients in their homes. The article entitled “Mobile euthanasia teams being considered by Dutch government” reported:

In a written answer to questions from Christian Union MPs [Health Minister Edith Schippers] said that mobile units “for patients who meet the criteria for euthanasia but whose doctors are unwilling to carry it out” was worthy of consideration.

“If the patient thinks it desirable, the doctor can refer him or her to a mobile team or clinic,” the minister wrote.

In her written answer Ms Schippers suggested that “extra expertise” could be summoned in complicated cases involving mental health problems or an inability to consent to euthanasia because of dementia.

In the space given to the story, the Telegraph‘s reporter does a nice job in raising the moral issues, providing comments from anti-euthanasia activists as well as a government promise that euthanasia will not be abused. It is disquieting though to read:

Dutch medics have been accused of practising euthanasia on demand.

A total of 21 people diagnosed as having early-stage dementia died at the hands of their doctors last year, according to the 2010 annual report on euthanasia.

The figures from last year also showed another year-on-year rise in cases with about 2,700 people choosing death by injection compared to 2,636 the year before.

This is extraordinary. A patient at home whose doctor will not kill him, will be sent another doctor by the government to put them down — and if the patient has dementia and therefore is incapable of meeting the second Dutch death criteria, the request to die must be voluntary and well-considered — an expert will decide. Added to this the Dutch doctors demand that they be allowed to kill those who are unhappy, poor or lonely — I’m very tempted to play the Nazi card.

One of the unofficial rules I have picked up over the years is that whoever plays the Nazi or Hitler card looses the argument. They are no longer making a reasonable argument but making an appeal to sentiment and horror. And when the topic is euthanasia, the murders by Nazi doctors of 75,000 people including 5000 children deemed racially, mentally or physically unfit, is apt to arise. However, I think playing the Nazi card is wrong in this case too, as it detracts from the moral issue at hand — the problem of euthanasia is not that it might be abused, but that it will be used.

By allowing the killing of people who are not considered fit to live, we are adopting a view of humanity that reduces existence to the balancing of pain and pleasure. Life is worth living when pleasure is greater than pain. This view of life makes irrelevant many of the traits and characteristics of our humanity.  Virtue, duty, courage, honor and even love play no part in this animalistic calculus. It is moral nihilism.

What struck me as I read the Daily Caller and Telegraph articles was that although the story arc and tone of the pieces evidenced a dislike of the Dutch way of death — there was little attempt at raising moral or faith objections. It was as if these issues were irrelevant to the story. I am loathe to fault these two stories for this gap in their coverage as I believe Western society is fast reaching the point where moral nihilism is the norm.

These two pieces bring to mind P.D. James 1991 novel The Children of Men — which describes a world where no children have been born for 25 years because men have become infertile. It brings home the terrible implications of this world where mankind has no future.  Violence increases as life grows meaningless. “Freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom from boredom,” these are the goals of life. Euthanasia is achieved through a paid incentive program and to the sound of violins, the aged and infirm board ferries that sink in the sea.

How did mankind come to such a place? The protagonist, Theo Faron, writes in his journal:

Much of this I can trace to the early 1990s: the search for alternative medicine, the perfumed oils, the massage, the stroking and anointing, the crystal-holding, the non-penetrative sex. Pornography and sexual violence on film, on television, in books, in life, had increased and became more explicit but less and less in the West we made love and bred children. It seemed at the time a welcome development in a world grossly polluted by over-population. As a historian I see it as the beginning of the end.

And what does  religion say to this sterile world? Faron writes:

During the mid-1990s the recognized churches, particularly the Church of England, moved from the theology of sin and redemption to a less uncompromising doctrine: corporate social responsibility coupled with a sentimental humanism. [The Churches] virtually abolished the Second Person of the Trinity together with His cross, substituting a golden orb of the sun in glory .. Even to unbelievers like myself, the cross, stigma of the barbarism of officialdom and of man’s ineluctable cruelty, has never been a comfortable symbol.

No, I am not asking for a treatment of the problem of pain from the Telegraph. I am bemoaning the state of our culture such that the world painted in James’ dystopian novel appears to be quite like our own — and that the killing of the aged, unfit and infirm by the state has become regrettable, but unremarkable.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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About geoconger
  • Daniel

    “extra expertise” could be summoned in complicated cases involving mental health problems or an inability to consent to euthanasia because of dementia.”
    To our definitions of expert: including “drip under pressure,” like “a popped grape,” and “logorrheac willing to talk with reporters,” we may add “doctor,” but I wonder whether any precise degree of certification may be subsumed under the rubric of expertise. Who are the experts?

  • Suzanne

    You’re too responsible to compare this situation to Hitler — but it’s okay to indict liberal Christians for causing the eventual dying out of the human race, based on your reading of dystopian novel?

    So I guess that means it’s okay to say that conservative Christians are causing the eventual enslavement of women based on my reading of A Handmaid’s Tale?

  • R9

    If someone is living a life of pain and suffering with no hope for better days, to demand they carry on because of “Virtue, duty, courage, honor” is kind of harsh. Who is the duty to, and how is it so important? What is the courage achieving?

    I can see moral questions for sure, if the criteria for euthanasia expand. But there’s a heavy reliance on slippery slopes here to say we’re heading for moral nihilism. And I can also see a moral bleakness in demand, say someone like Terry Pratchett (who wishes to end his own life before Alzeimers takes all quality away from it) goes on living purely for the sake of living.

    Nope not journalism related but Geoconger is just being a conservative blogger today instead of a journalism one so, *shrug*.

    • geoconger

      All of which goes to show the point of my argument. There are strong moral and theological beliefs at play as evidenced by the comments. And the reporting does not address these questions.

  • R9

    Maybe you should have focussed on that that instead of “bemoaning the state of our culture” then.

  • Harold

    “corporate social responsibility coupled with a sentimental humanism.” Pretty much sums it up.

  • Jerry

    It’s a complex and controversial area sure to arouse strong passions and enrage people, but I would love to read about someone who disagrees with euthanasia on the basis of redemptive suffering or more generally the spiritual value of enduring unavoidable suffering. It is innate in all life to seek pleasure and to try to avoid suffering of any kind so that reaction would be perfectly understandable.

    My mind went in this direction because I recently became aware of a beautiful teaching story of St. Francis about what constitutes perfect joy. The story includes this near the end:

    if we endure all those evils and insults and blows with joy and patience, reflecting that we must accept and bear the sufferings of the Blessed Christ patiently for love of Him, oh, Brother Leo, write: that is perfect joy!

    ‘And now hear the conclusion, Brother Leo. Above all the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ gives to His friends is that of conquering oneself and willingly enduring sufferings, insults, humiliations, and hardships for the love of Christ…

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Suzanne said that it was correct to ignore any lessons we could learn from what happened in Germany under Hitler. However, there is much to be learned from that era and we would be ignorant fools with our heads ostrich-like in the sand to ignore the history of that era (sorry, I’m a retired history teacher). But there is even more to be learned from 1930′s Germany when that country first descended into barbarism in the medical field which then opened the way to the Dr. Mengeles under Hitler.
    There was no more chilling display in any museum than the display on 1930′s German medicine in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. a few years ago.’
    The sheer arrogance of the belief that something similar couldn’t possibly happen here or in our time is mind-boggling in its ignorance of history. Yet it is those on the side of life and who know history who are frequently charicatured as the “bad guys” in the media.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Euthanasia without explicit consent should be called what it is: murder.

    And it’s a huge issue, as I quickly found when I started to poke around Google and Wikipedia. My journalism point is that neither linked article adequately explores the current issue of killing people with dementia. Here is a BBC article written in 2002 that does a better job, I think, and isn’t afraid of the comparison to Nazi medicine.

    It hasn’t been that long since we were reading about the killing of handicapped children in the Netherlands under the misnomer of child euthanasia.

    And haven’t we heard that there is not just a “right to die”, but a “duty to die”. And that was in the United States.

    Having a genetic form of Alzheimer’s in the family, I’m not without sympathy. But journalists always seem to focus on the physical suffering, although palliative care is well developed, particularly in Britain. The real story is about despair, or, as Fr. Conger puts it, nihilism.

  • Martha

    I would have thought that the solution to the problems of poverty and loneliness would have been to work so that people are not, in their old age, left on inadequate pensions or without contact by even a district nurse.

    I see that, for some Dutch, the solution is instead to kill the old and lonely.

    Well, I suppose anything to reduce public expenditure and the tax bill!

  • mattk

    What a wicked world. It is a mazing to me that Corrie Ten Boom is of the same nation as these malignant doctors.

  • teahouse


    no, such readings are not not legitimate.

    A Handmaid’s Tale is rubbish and tells us more about the mind who conceived it.

    And Liberal Christianity (TM) is not to blame (at least not more than others) since it didn’t start this. It never starts anything. It merely facilitates decline.

    But it would be more than apt to “play the Hitler card” (and whoever gets to decide that this would mean “lose the argument. No, it is not Godwin’s law.) as the pro-death squad is sitting in the same boat, sailing with the same wind as the Third Reich.

  • William

    I respect the way that geoconger makes this argument, and especially in addressing that “the problem of euthanasia is not that it might be abused, but that it will be used.”

    However, I disagree with the author on the point that euthanasia is “adopting a view of humanity that reduces existence to the balancing of pain and pleasure” or in which “virtue, duty, courage, honor and even love play no part.” Indeed, if anything I find the Dutch Medical Association’s decision to expand the definition of who may qualify for euthanasia reassuring on this point. From the article:

    More than 68 percent agreed with the statement that doctors should be “permitted to factor in vulnerability, loss of function, confinement to bed, loneliness, humiliation and loss of dignity” when determining whether a patient is a good candidate for euthanasia.

    I don’t think these considerations can be reduced to a “pleasure versus pain” dichotomy; I think they address some of those “traits and characteristics of our humanity” that separate us from animalistic calculus and moral nihilism. And I think taking them into consideration on the grounds of euthanasia is essential to preserving our humanity in conditions that will, regardless, take our life.

  • Stringman

    Required reading: Herman Hendin’s “Seduced By Death”, which examines and documents these issues in detail. Among other points, he asks why, as the criteria for allowing euthanasia is expanded to encompass people who are suffering from mental suffering, we should continue to have suicide prevention hotlines or services – aren’t the depressed also worthy of our compassionate aid in taking their own life? There’s a lot more than that, though, read him yourself.