Belgium took another startling step in the realm of life issues Dec. 12 when its Senate — by a count of 50 to 17 — voted to expand its euthanasia law by removing its age limitation. This means that children of any age who are terminally ill, or who are in great pain and lack access to treatment, can choose to end their lives — with the agreement of their parents or legal guardians and after they present their request in writing. As of Dec. 20, the law was scheduled to go before the lower house of parliament, where it’s likely to be approved.
This vote came on the heels of the country’s parliamentary approval of euthanasia for those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as for handicapped children. While the debate currently is most heated in Belgium, euthanasia and assisted suicide have been declared legal in the Netherlands and “nonpunishable” in Switzerland. To combat these growing challenges, a new organization was formed in mid-November — to general accolades by pro-life advocates — to fight the so-called mercy killings.
A hidden practice
The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, announced in Brussels, has vowed to oppose euthanasia legislation while promoting better palliative care and “affirming life” against suffering and despair.
“These are grave issues — and the Catholic Church is now quite isolated in its prophetic call for life to be respected,” said Bishop Jean Kockerols, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels and vice president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE). “Voices from the Church’s hierarchy and Rome have been largely ignored. This makes it essential for laypeople to speak out more forcefully across the Continent.”
Throughout Europe, poll evidence suggests most citizens see the practices of euthanasia and physician assisted suicide as desirable — with rules and safeguards. Although initially intended as a limited law of “compassion” to assist the terminally ill, existing euthanasia laws quickly are being extended as soon as they’re on the statute books, Kevin Fitzpatrick, the new coalition’s director, told Our Sunday Visitor.
“In the Netherlands and Belgium, euthanasia already is used routinely against people suffering disabilities, depression and other non-terminal conditions,” he said. “The practice is largely hidden and clearly out of control.”
Like others, Fitzpatrick sees sinister trends at work. In Switzerland, where euthanasia is allowed if “not motivated by egotistic considerations,” huge profits have been made by clinics such as the Zurich-based Dignitas, which has attracted clients from abroad with slick marketing. In the Netherlands, where the United Nations has voiced concern at current practices, newborn babies with conditions such as spina bifida can be killed on grounds of “their perceived future suffering, or that of their parents.” In 2012, mobile euthanasia clinics began offering people lethal injections free of charge at home.
In Belgium, reasons given for euthanasia deaths have included blindness, anorexia and botched operations.
Bishop Kockerols blames media hype for the latest drive to extend euthanasia to dementia sufferers and children.
“Over the last 11 years, the law has been enlarged in practice, with people requesting euthanasia who aren’t dying or even ill,” the bishop told OSV. “These are dangerous developments. The notion that everyone has a right to choose death may well create a mentality which condemns us all.”
Euthanasia and assisted suicide are not in the competence of the European Union, whose Treaty on Functioning encourages cooperation in health matters, but respects the responsibility of member-states “for the definition of their health policy.” Yet pressure to standardize laws and procedures has grown in areas such as abortion and same-sex marriage, while judgments by the European Court of Human Rights have encouraged calls for a Europe-wide “right to die.”
These could intensify if two major countries, Britain and France, move forward with laws on euthanasia. Legalizing “medicalized assistance in ending life with dignity” was a 2012 election pledge by France’s Socialist president, Francois Hollande.
“We’re all worried,” France’s Catholic La Croix daily commented in October. “We want a society which allows everyone to pass through situations of vulnerability without being branded useless or costly, or having their life’s value called in question. ... But what’s presented as an individual liberty is now being turned, step by step, into a system for excluding the vulnerable and despairing.”
Public interest in euthanasia is growing in other countries, too, even in staunchly Catholic Poland.
United in opposition
Catholic Church leaders across the Continent have been united in resisting demands for euthanasia. In France, the bishops’ conference has warned it will bitterly resist the current euthanasia bill, after unsuccessfully campaigning earlier this year against legalization of same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, Belgium’s Catholic bishops followed their Dutch counterparts this October by joining Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim leaders in denouncing the new legislation.
In November, pro-life campaigners forced the EU to reconsider its position on embryo research after collecting 1.9 million signatures for a Church-backed European Citizens’ Initiative, which proposes legislation as a way of increasing direct democracy. Supporters say they hope the action will send a “strong message” about protecting human life and encourage other initiatives.
“The assumption that everyone has a right to end their life represents the summit of individualism, and we’ll have to be very strong in resisting it,” Bishop Kockerols said. “Many of these debates are now on a European level, so it’ll also be important to bring people from various countries together behind basic ethical values.”
The new coalition has warned that pressure for assisted suicide could worsen during Europe’s economic recession.
Abuse and neglect of the elderly are already “real, dangerous and well-evidenced,” the coalition noted in its founding statement. The record suggests euthanasia laws will continue to be extended beyond their original target group.
“Euthanasia isn’t a form of medical treatment — it’s the very end of medicine, and we need the Catholic Church to use every opportunity to stress its categorical stance on this issue,” Fitzpatrick said. “Every voice will be important in highlighting the deep moral flaws in the euthanasia campaign, and we’re happy to have the Church behind us.”
Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Warsaw.