New drive for euthanasia revives bitter debate in Europe

At a small Quaker hall in the prosperous small town of Charlbury, England, just north of Oxford, 30 residents listen politely as Sir Terence English, retired head of the prestigious British Medical Association, drily sets out his wares. 

An Assisted Dying Bill permitting euthanasia is due to be debated shortly in Britain’s House of Lords. The meeting, organized by Dignity in Dying, is just one of many taking place locally to drum up public support. 

With similar laws now pending in several countries, Catholic Church representatives are urging caution. 

“For our Church’s magisterium, the beginning and end of life represent non-negotiable values,” Thierry Bonaventura, media officer of the Council of European Bishops Conferences (CCEE), told Our Sunday Visitor. “Yet the issues surrounding euthanasia are often quite technical and hard to understand, especially when not all governments and parliaments appear much open to public dialogue on them. Very often, it comes down to the consciences of individual doctors.”

Rapid growth

It was in the Netherlands that euthanasia was first legalized in 2001, under a law allowing doctors a degree of discretion when patients became incapable of deciding their fate for themselves. 

Though supported in opinion polls by most of the country’s 16 million inhabitants, the measure was condemned in a joint petition by the Catholic Church and all main Dutch religious groups, including Muslims and Jews. 

The law has been extended, with an average of 3,100 assisted suicides registered annually. 

The debate on euthanasia has moved on significantly all across Europe. According to surveys, most citizens now see it as desirable if appropriate rules are in place. 

In Belgium, where euthanasia was made legal in 2002, 1,133 cases were registered in 2011, mostly involving terminal cancer, according to a federal commission. The number is growing rapidly.  

Last summer, a mentally disabled man serving 20 years for a double murder became Belgium’s first prison inmate to be euthanized. In November, Belgium announced plans to follow the Dutch in allowing euthanasia for Alzheimer’s sufferers, as well as for children, “if capable of discernment or affected by an incurable illness or suffering we cannot alleviate.” 

In December, physicians at Brussels University Hospital helped deaf 45-year-old twins Marc and Eddy Verbessem end their lives via lethal injection after the brothers learned they faced becoming blind. Neither was terminally ill or in pain. But the doctor presiding at the “mercy killing,” David Dufour, insisted the twins had made the decision in “full conscience” after concluding their problems had “made life unbearable.” 

Forms of euthanasia are also permitted in Luxembourg and Switzerland.

Opposition on both sides

Meanwhile, in France, legalizing euthanasia was a May 2012 election pledge of Socialist president Francois Hollande. France’s current 2005 law prohibits euthanasia; in January 2011 the country’s senate threw out legislation that would have permitted “every adult person” to request a “quick and painless death.” 

Hollande
Hollande

But a government-commissioned report was presented by Didier Sicard, president of France’s National Consultative Committee on Ethics, in December and in June, the promised draft law is to be published. 

President Hollande faces tough opposition. France’s Académie Nationale de Médecine has declared itself against any moves to legalize euthanasia. 

Like its French counterpart, the British Medical Association has consistently rejected euthanasia and assisted suicide. 

For now, at least, opponents of euthanasia still have everything to play for. Some experts think the euthanasia movement reflects demographic pressures in the aging population of the European Union, where taxpayer-funded welfare systems are already stretched by the Continent’s economic downturn. With spending targets becoming stricter in national health services, the elderly look set to become an economic burden.

Changing moral values

Bonaventura, the CCEE media officer, rejects talk of sinister motives and thinks the euthanasia movement reflects genuine concerns about the right of individuals to determine the manner of their deaths. 

But he agrees moral values are changing, strengthening the view that human life only has value when it’s healthy and productive. 

For Catholics, the issues should be clear. Yet in the highly differentiated societies of Europe, the Church’s voice is only one of many. 

“If society’s vision of the human being is changing, this will affect all aspects of life, and the Church has a duty to point this out,” Bonaventura told OSV. 

“Yet Europe’s lay Catholics are divided themselves on issues like euthanasia. Whereas those in the East are more inclined to followed the Church’s teaching, those in the West are likelier to be influenced by prevailing secular perspectives.” 

Up to three-quarters of respondents accepted assisted suicide in a survey of 12 countries this autumn by Switzerland’s Isopublic polling agency. 

In Britain, where an act of euthanasia — if defined as murder or manslaughter — can still incur a life sentence, 87 percent of citizens agreed in a poll last August by London’s Daily Telegraph that the terminally ill “should have the right to decide when they want to die and to ask medical assistance to help them.” 

In France, a similar proportion, Church members included, favored allowing euthanasia in an October survey for the Catholic Le Pèlerin weekly. 

Even in staunchly Catholic Poland, where a bill was rejected in 2004 to permit assisted suicide in “specifically justified instances,” 53 percent supported euthanasia when requested by a patient in grave pain, according to a January survey by Warsaw’s Public Opinion Research Centre (CBOS). 

Church leaders say surveys like these are inherently unreliable and ignore the complex ethical dilemmas associated with euthanasia. People’s responses are heavily determined, they point out, by cases in the media, or sufferings they’ve witnessed in their own families. 

That’s the message put out firmly by Catholic bishops from the Netherlands to Poland, who have warned supporters of euthanasia, including MPs who vote for it, they risk gravely violating Church doctrine. 

Bonaventura dislikes bleak talk about Europe’s moral and spiritual decline. Although negative pressures are always at work, he thinks the current Year of Faith is a reminder that Christians should remain optimistic and hopeful. 

In the meantime, the Church must respond energetically to the pressing task of ensuring people understand what’s at stake. 

“It isn’t just a question of fighting these proposals, but of witnessing to our faith and helping others do the same,” the CCEE officer told OSV. “We can still rely on the liberal conscience to discern the kind of laws and practices which will best serve the future of humanity.” 

Back in Charlbury, the Quaker hall meeting concludes to a chorus of polite thanks, and Sir Terence English is praised for carefully setting out the case for Britain’s latest Assisted Dying Bill. Most participants seem sympathetic to the bill. But there have been voices of dissent, too, and much talk of “slippery slopes” — a sign that, in the end, people’s consciences will be what counts most. 

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from England.