Legalizing Euthanasia: A Significant Move

Some people likely were surprised when they read in the newspaper two weeks ago that euthanasia had just been legalized in the Netherlands. Is it not the case that euthanasia has been legal in the Netherlands for decades? The answer to this question is: yes and no! In the strictest sense, the answer is no. But, de facto, the answer is yes, as euthanasia has been tolerated for about twenty years in the Netherlands. Doctors who have acted according to certain standards or rules have not been prosecuted for euthanizing their patients. Such a practice has been sanctioned if carried out in response to a patient's request (although Dutch statistics show that in actuality thousands of patients have been euthanized apart from a request that their lives be ended).

So what has changed? In one sense, nothing much! However, by formally recognizing euthanasia as a legal practice, and thereby acknowledging patients' rights to be killed with the help of a doctor, the Netherlands is making an alarming public statement before the world at large. It is saying that euthanasia is not only to be tolerated, but that it is a good thing and even a right.

Of course, in a country which has accepted the Nietzschean claim that God is dead, anything is possible. And I do mean anything. For when people no longer recognize that they are subject to an order not instituted by themselves, but by God, then they will take the law into their own hands and decide for themselves what is good and evil. In this land east of Eden where humanity reigns supreme, there is in the end a real risk of moral anarchy. Only a Hobbsean arrangement or public contract to minimize the resultant damage can then help people to live in some sort of peace with their neighbors.

The legal recognition of the right to euthanasia is based on the assumption that it is the prerogative of autonomous agents (in this case, patients) to claim that what they desire is right for them and should therefore be granted without question. This is the ultimate human hubris, so typical of our times. It goes hand in hand with a demand for control. Present-day citizens living in the Western world are used to pressing buttons to get what they want - be it a certain TV program, instant cash, or some other desired commodity. The society in which they live is a society of technological triumph and consumerism.

Not surprisingly, the hubris that has accompanied our technological advance and the consumerist ethos which has led to an increased demand for all sorts of goods and services has affected the health care profession as well. In many parts of the world, patients now see themselves as "customers" or "clients," and doctors view themselves as mere "providers" of services. Given this understanding, it is little wonder that patients believe they have the "right" to purchase or ask for what they want - and that such a right should encompass euthanasia.

Even more disturbing, requests for euthanasia signify a failure to recognize that life is a gift from God and is not for us to take. Indeed, such requests are indicative that people have turned their backs on God. Euthanasia is thus an act not only of hubris but also of despair - the ultimate lack of hope. For those whose hope does not extend beyond this life because they do not believe in the risen God Who died for our sins, life's primary meaning is likely rooted in the satisfaction of earthly needs and desires. If this is one's world-view, suffering is regarded as totally intolerable. In the Christian framework, however, suffering can be valuable inasmuch as it may bring the individual closer to God and neighbor.

For patients and families in despair, euthanasia provides the illusion of control in a technological society in which the dying process is all too often extended unnecessarily and in which hospital wards can become places of pain. The desire for euthanasia signifies a growing distrust of patients in their doctors. Perhaps it is not surprising that this distrust should surface as it has in the Netherlands, where people typically do not have access to hospice programs. The hospice culture, which has been nurtured by Christian thinking, is a life-affirming alternative to euthanasia which does not insist on the promotion or preservation of life at all costs. It rejects the idea of killing, while recognizing that there is a time to die. If such programs were widely available in the Netherlands, the response to the increasing technologization of medicine might not have been the sanctioning of euthanasia.

Some are saying that the legalization of euthanasia in a country that has tolerated the practice for a couple of decades is no big deal. However, such legalization is a big deal because of what is at stake. People have real needs and concerns at the end of life, and the Dutch legalization puts forward an example of how to respond to them. The example is a poor one that must be regarded as such. There is a better way to help people in the midst of the dying process.