Missing Catholic voices in Belgium’s euthanasia debate

Let me commend to you an excellent article on a horrible subject.

The Associated Press story “Belgium considering unprecedented law to grant euthanasia for children, dementia patients” reports on moves by the ruling Socialist Party to permit doctors to euthanize children as well as adults with dementia. This report — long at 1000 words from a wire service — offers a balanced account on the move to extend the right to die to children.

It is thorough, balanced, provides context and expert analysis to allow a reader to make up his own mind. Yet, are some voices missing? The article opens with a question:

Should children have the right to ask for their own deaths?

It lays out the issue:

In Belgium, where euthanasia is now legal for people over the age of 18, the government is considering extending it to children — something that no other country has done. The same bill would offer the right to die to adults with early dementia.

Advocates argue that euthanasia for children, with the consent of their parents, is necessary to give families an option in a desperately painful situation. But opponents have questioned whether children can reasonably decide to end their own lives. …

Provides context:

Belgium is already a euthanasia pioneer; it legalized the practice for adults in 2002. In the last decade, the number of reported cases per year has risen from 235 deaths in 2003 to 1,432 in 2012, the last year for which statistics are available. Doctors typically give patients a powerful sedative before injecting another drug to stop their heart. …

And offers opinion from a Catholic archbishop and medical ethicists.

“It is strange that minors are considered legally incompetent in key areas, such as getting married, but might (be able) to decide to die,” Catholic Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard testified. Charles Foster, who teaches medical law and ethics at Oxford University, believes children couldn’t possibly have the capacity to make an informed decision about euthanasia since even adults struggle with the concept.

“It often happens that when people get into the circumstances they had so feared earlier, they manage to cling on all the more,” he said. “Children, like everyone else, may not be able to anticipate how much they will value their lives if they were not killed.”

There are others, though, who argue that because Belgium has already approved euthanasia for adults, it is unjust to deny it to children. “The principle of euthanasia for children sounds shocking at first, but it’s motivated by compassion and protection,” said John Harris, a professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester. “It’s unfair to provide euthanasia differentially to some citizens and not to others (children) if the need is equal.” …

The AP’s sentiments are with those opposed to euthanizing children — closing with comments by an anti-euthanasia voice that lands a solid hit on those who call for death-choice. But it nevertheless offers both sides to the story and refrains from demonizing those with whom it disagrees. For a template on how to write a story about a contested moral issue, I would offer this piece.

Yet an American reader might question the use of the expert quotes. The commentary begins with a soft quote from the Catholic archbishop and then moves into a more rigorous back and forth on the topic between medical ethicists and physicians. Why do we not hear moral arguments from religious leaders? Where are the Catholic voices? (This is Belgium. after all.)

Selecting experts to respond to an issue is one way of shading a story — setting a dope against an expert, or a zealot against a rational voice is one way a newspaper can push the story in the direction it fancies. Should we then say the AP is unconcerned with the religious element to this story? Getting the soundbite out of the way from the archbishop before bringing in the important voices? Or, was there no faith voice comparable in stature to the ethicists and physicians available to speak?

There may be some of that present, but my sense is that the use of ethicists to discuss the issue rather than moral theologians reflects the state of the debate in a post-Christian society like Belgium. European anti-clericalism, the growing power of secularism coupled with the abuse scandals has driven the Catholic Church out of the public square in some parts of Europe.

A well-rounded Anglo-American or even French newspaper account of the debate on this issue would include faith voices. Not so in Belgium, the Netherlands, the Nordic countries or Germany where faith voices are heard less and less in the public square.The intellectual and political culture of those countries holds to the privatization of religion that does not welcome its insights into debates on public morality.

By including faith voices in moral debates in the Anglo-American press, are we privileging religion? Or are we giving it is fair place in the debate? Is the expected faith voice a political or intellectual choice? By that I mean do we hear from the Catholic churchman, Rabbi, or Protestant theologian because of the position accorded them by society — or because of the strength of their arguments?

As a journalistic issue, should we expect to hear religious voices opine on moral topics in irreligious societies?

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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About geoconger
  • Roki

    I suppose my question is, would anyone really accept a religious voice as an “expert” on a topic of universal moral application? Would they not be seen, at least by everyone from a different tradition, as a sort of “special interest group” or a “biased opinion” rather than an “expert”?

    For example, what does a Muslim or a Buddhist practitioner care about what the Catholic Bishops say – except to know where the Catholics stand politically on the issue? I don’t see non-Catholics crediting Catholic moral theology as having any authority or weight outside the Catholic Church.

    How would a Catholic, or Protestant, or Jew, respond to a Muslim moral theologian’s statement on the subject? Perhaps with a, “That’s an interesting argument,” or perhaps with a, “Now I know how Muslims are supposed to think/act,” or perhaps with a, “Don’t they know they can’t impose Sharia on us?” In any case, they would judge the Muslim’s statement by the lights of their Christian or Jewish theology, and not consider it authoritative in itself.

    Because Western societies are increasingly pluralistic, I’m not sure it makes journalistic sense to cite religious authorities as “experts” in the way your post suggests. Indeed, by putting a photo of the bishop at the top of the story, and citing him first of all, one could argue that it gives the religious voice a great deal of prominence.

    What would be really useful, though, would be to identify the philosophical perspective of the various bioethicists: this one is a Kantian, or that one is a Utilitarian, and so on. Would that be too high-brow or specialized for a newspaper-reading public?

  • Dingo Dongo

    “This is Belgium. after all.” should be “This is Belgium, after all.”

  • AuthenticBioethics

    To me, the religion ghost in this story is the godlessness of those behind the push eo expand euthanasia, rather than the absence of religious voices. I want to know more about the religion of the pro-euthanasia folks. And if they’re not religious, I want to know that.


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