Death, Inc.

A minor British reality television celebrity named Katie Hopkins, who specializes in outrageous comments, recently said that England should have “euthanasia vans” that would come to a person’s home to send them to the great beyond. “We just have far too many old people. It’s ridiculous to be living in a country where we can put dogs to sleep but not people,” Hopkins explained.

The media storm she kicked up would suggest that England is not quite ready for “death on wheels” curbside suicide, but like all such seemingly wacky suggestions these days, it may simply be a question of timing.

Physician-assisted suicide took a major PR hit when Dr. Jack Kevorkian was bumping people off in his van in the 1990s, but we’ve come a long way since then. In the United States, three states now allow it, with more states considering such legislation following the suicide of Brittany Maynard, an attractive 29-year-old woman suffering from brain cancer.

In Europe, the movement has been picking up steam and nowhere more quickly than Belgium, where once a supposedly carefully crafted law, guaranteed to protect the rights of all, has been modified and expanded to include minors.

According to a June 22 article in The New Yorker by Rachel Aviv, “the laws [in Belgium] seem to have created a new conception of suicide as a medical treatment, stripped of its tragic dimensions.”

Raphael Cohen-Almagor, a world expert on euthanasia who recently spoke with website Mercator.net, says euthanasia has been growing in Belgium since it was legalized in 2002. Record keeping appears to be less than thorough, but “in 2007, 14.5 percent of all deaths in Flanders were the result of continuous deep sedation until death,” up from 8.2 percent six years earlier. More troubling, 1.7 percent of deaths in 2013 involved the use of life-ending drugs that were not explicitly requested — mercy killing.

If killing mom or dad for the sake of the kids isn’t creepy enough, the impact on doctors is even weirder. A doctor interviewed by Aviv described the euthanasia process as “very magical,” although he confessed to worrying about the influence of his own values on his patients: “I am afraid of the power that I have in that moment.” Indeed.

That euthanasia is about more than unbearable pain and terminal disease is becoming clear. Aviv reports that 13 percent of Belgians who were euthanized did not have a terminal condition. Evidence is growing that euthanasia is being used on the incompetent and demented, psychiatric patients and those who are “tired of life.” Interestingly, Belgium also has the second highest suicide rate in Europe.

While Belgium still has the illusion that the issue is about personal autonomy, it is clear that there are many other considerations. Planned Parenthood might find solidarity in the fact that Belgian euthanasia patients are becoming a source for organ donations.

As physician-assisted suicide becomes more available in this country, one can imagine how quickly it will be promoted as a cost-control strategy for the health care industry. The hard cases like Brittany Maynard that garner the headlines will give way to the dispatch of the unwanted, the unloved and the expensive. Given our track record, if ever there was one country that should not have the power of life and death over its citizens, it is the United States.

In Belgium, Cohen-Almagor said, those who oppose euthanasia are now considered “religious fundamentalists.” We can expect the same. While the Catholic Church hardly needs more challenges, it is being handed another one. Will our people be ready?

Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.