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Continent Death: Euthanasia in Europe


Self-delusion is rampant in the euthanasia movement. Most proponents recognize that it is inherently dangerous to legalize killing. But they desperately want to believe that they can control the grim reaper. Thus, they continue to peddle the nonsense that "guidelines will protect against abuse" despite overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary.


Too many people think with their hearts instead of their brains. Wanting the world to suit their desires, when faced with hard truths to the contrary, they refuse to face facts they don't want to believe. This common human failing has a name: self-delusion.

Self-delusion is rampant in the euthanasia movement. Most proponents recognize that it is inherently dangerous to legalize killing. But they desperately want to believe that they can control the grim reaper. Thus, they continue to peddle the nonsense that "guidelines will protect against abuse" despite overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary.

Euthanasia has been around long enough and practiced sufficiently enough for us to detect a pattern. Killing is sold to the public as a last resort justified only in cases where nothing else can be done to alleviate suffering. But once the reaper is allowed through the door, the categories of killable people expand steadily toward the acceptance of death on demand.

The classic example is the Netherlands, where doctors have been allowed to euthanize patients since 1973. Dutch death regulations require that euthanasia be strictly limited to the sickest patients, for whom nothing but extermination will alleviate overwhelming suffering a concept in Dutch law known as force majeur. But once mercy killing was redefined as being good in a few cases rather than being bad in all circumstances, it didn't take long for the protective guidelines to be viewed widely as impediments to be overcome instead of important protections to be obeyed.

Thus, supposedly ironclad protections against abuse such as the doctrine of force mejeur and the stipulation that patient give multiple requests for euthanasia quickly ceased meaningfully to constrain mercy killing. As a consequence, Dutch doctors now legally kill terminally ill people who ask for it, chronically ill people who ask for it, disabled people who ask for it, and depressed people who ask for it.

Euthanasia has also entered the pediatric wards, where eugenic infanticide has become common even though babies cannot ask to be killed. According to a 1997 study published in the British medical journal The Lancet, approximately 8 percent of all Dutch infant deaths result from lethal injections. The babies deemed killable are often disabled and thus are thought not to have a "livable life." The practice has become so common that 45 percent of neonatologists and 31 percent of pediatricians who responded to Lancet surveys had killed babies.

It gets worse: Repeated studies sponsored by the Dutch government have found that doctors kill approximately 1,000 patients each year who have not asked for euthanasia. This is not only a violation of every guideline, but an act that Dutch law considers murder. Nonvoluntary euthanasia has become so common that it even has a name: "Termination without request or consent."

Despite this carnage, Dutch doctors are very rarely prosecuted for such crimes, and the few that are brought to court are usually exonerated. Moreover, even if a doctor is found guilty, he or she is almost never punished in any meaningful way, nor does the murderer face discipline by the Dutch Medical Society. For example, in 2001, a doctor was convicted of murdering an 84-year-old patient who had not asked to be killed. Prosecutors demanded a nine-month suspended probation (!), yet even this brush it can't even be called a slap on the wrist was rejected by the trial judge who refused to impose any punishment. Not to worry. The appellate court decided to get tough: It imposed a one-week suspended sentence on the doctor for murder.

Even such praising with faint damnation isn't enough for the Dutch Medical Association. As a result of this and the handful of other non-punished murder convictions of doctors who engaged in termination without request or consent, the organization is lobbying to legalize non-voluntary euthanasia. Along these same lines and demonstrating that the culture of death recognizes no limits the day after the Dutch formally legalized euthanasia, the country's minister of health advocated the provision of suicide pills to the elderly who do not qualify for killing under Dutch law.

Lest we think the Dutch experience is a fluke, let us now turn our attention to Belgium. Only one year ago the Belgians legalized Dutch-style euthanasia under "strict" guidelines. As with the Netherlands, once unfettered, the euthanasia culture quickly began to swallow Belgium whole. Moreover, the slide down the slope has occurred at a greatly accelerated pace. It took decades for the Dutch euthanasia to reach the current morass. But Belgian euthanasia went off the rails from day one: The very first reported killing that of a man with multiple sclerosis violated the legal guidelines (not that anything was done about it). Moreover, while 203 people were officially recognized as having been euthanized in Belgium during the first year of legal practice, most euthanasia deaths were not reported (a violation of the law). The actual toll is probably closer to 1,000.

And Belgian euthanasia advocates have already begun agitating to expand the categories of killable people. A just-completed forum attended by hundreds of Belgian doctors and euthanasia enthusiasts advocated that minors be allowed to request euthanasia, as well as people with degenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer's, who are not imminently dying. Not only that, but the chairman of the conference wants to force doctors to participate in killing patients, even if they are morally opposed. If he gets his way, the law will soon require doctors who oppose euthanasia to refer patients who want to be killed to a colleague willing to do the deed. So much for choice.

The Swiss have also unleashed the culture of death into their midst. Rather than authorizing doctors to commit euthanasia, however, Swiss law instead permits private suicide facilitation. As a result, Switzerland has become a destination for "suicide tourists" who travel there not to ski, but to receive a poison cocktail.

A private group that goes by the name "Dignitas" facilitates most Swiss assisted suicides. Its founder, lawyer Ludwig Minelli, recently told the Swiss press that he will not restrict Dignitas's dark work to providing services to the dying. Indeed, the report said Minelli believes that "severe depression can be irreversible and that he is justified" in helping "the mentally ill" to die. Along these lines, a Swiss doctor is being investigated for possible prosecution for the double suicide of French twins with schizophrenia. That may sound like a serious effort to crack down on abuse, but remember, once euthanasia is legitimized, such talk is often cheap. If the Dutch experience is any indication, even if the suicide doctor is convicted, he will not be meaningfully punished.

Despite this history, euthanasia advocates here and abroad still cling irrationally to the hubristic and foolish notion that they are competent to administer death. They remind one of Dr. Frankenstein, who, in the name of benefiting humankind, unleashed a terrible monster.


This is Meaghen Gonzalez, Editor of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

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Wesley J. Smith. "Continent Death: Euthanasia in Europe." National Review (December 23, 2004).

Reprinted with permission of the National Review.

The Author

smithw4smithw7Wesley J. Smith is an American lawyer and author and a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute's Center on Human Exceptionalism.  In 2004 he was named by the National Journal as one of the nation’s top expert thinkers in bioengineering for his work in bioethics. He is among the world's foremost critics of assisted suicide and utilitarian bioethics. He is the author of fourteen books including: The War on Humans, Culture of Death: The Age of "Do Harm" Medicine, A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy, Power over Pain: How to Get the Pain Control You Need, Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World, Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America, Power Over Pain: How to Get the Pain Control You Need, and Forced Exit: the Slippery Slope from Assisted Suicide to Legalized Murder. Wesley J. Smith is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center. 

Copyright © 2004 National Review

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