Criticize commercialization in Belgian physician-assisted suicides
I am standing on the precipice of something great, you say. I am making the right decision, you say. My family won’t miss me, you say. Finally, the pain will go away. Suddenly, you are standing on the precipice of something, but it isn’t great. It is not the dream job or the relationship that will magically reset the clock on all past and failed relationships but instead you are gripping onto the edges of a very tall apartment building, aimed at throwing yourself over the railing and into the grimy abyss.
The family thinks you are doing better, and so do those random friends of your parents who are basically your family — the friends who were in the waiting room the day you were born. They stun you with a barrage of questions and praises. One sticks in your mind and never fails to escape: “You look so healthy!”
You chuckle to yourself, thinking, If only they saw me now. This is the first thing that made you laugh all day. Heretofore, you never believed this day would come. Finally, you thrust yourself over the bars and you meet your death.
Some fissure cracked in you that suddenly made you come to the realization that you were merely on the precipice of death. Struggling with depression your entire life made the possibility of suicide defensible, yet society has yet to catch up with this concept as suicide carries a social stigmatization unmatched by any other form of self-harm. In Western Europe, there has been increasing wave to secularize death. In fact, in Belgium an organization known as Life End Information Forum attempts to glamorize it by presenting it in a utopic form, stripping the country bare of all its Catholic roots.
However, there is a stark difference between physician assisted suicide on the grounds of terminal illness and physician-assisted suicide in the case of psychological illness. In the Netherlands and Belgium, the first and second countries to decriminalize euthanasia, this “right to die” extends beyond terminal illness. According to a June 2014 New Yorker article, studies in both Oregon and Switzerland, states where physician-assisted euthanasia is legal, found that individuals are more encouraged by the desire to remain autonomous than by the pain. Shockingly, estimates show that the number of euthanasia and assisted suicide deaths has doubled in the Netherlands in the last five years and that in Belgium that number has skyrocketed by 150 percent, according to the 2014 New Yorker article. Principally, the control of who has the right to die falls in the hands of medical professionals, which, to say the least, is alarming. Doctors now decide who has the right to die, and the commercialization of death in Belgium may allow them to be incentivized to do so.
The process of confirming a euthanasia is done through a series of steps in order to comply with the law through the Federal Control and Evaluation Commission in Belgium. In the case of terminal illness, two doctors must approve that the patient is in fact incurable. In non-terminal cases, those who suffer from psychiatric disorders must be approved by three doctors. In 2013, 13 percent of all those euthanized in Belgium were not suffering from a terminal illness, with five percent of those individuals suffering from psychiatric disorders.
The push is closely tied to the spirit of Belgian humanism, or the idea that the individual has the right to take responsibility over their condition and therefore has the right to choose whether or not to die. But while the humanist argument seems all well and good, it diverges from the spirit of corruption inherent in the system. In fact, according to the New Yorker article, only half of the euthanasia in Flanders has been reported to the Federal Control and Evaluation Commission.
This gaping hole in the system has failed to be addressed, largely because the board responsible for granting these life and death decisions is clearly biased; half of them are affiliated with right-to-die organizations. This presence of corruption and lack of transparency is frightening as one can be unsure of the circumstances of the unreported cases of euthanasia. In fact, there is an uncertainty surrounding whether those with psychiatric illness should have been granted the right to die.
In fact, some doctors may be enamored with their newly found rights, and with so many holes in the vetting process, it shouldn’t be trusted. A Belgian family doctor, Patrick Wyffels called the process of euthanasia “very magical.”
However, at times, he is concerned that his own viewpoints on the process may influence a patient to a detriment: “Depending on communication techniques, I might lead a patient one way or the other.” In the days leading up to the final act, he expressed, “I am afraid of the power that I have in that moment.” If doctors themselves cannot rely on their own professional judgment to make these decisions, why should they be granted this humanist right if they choose to be irresponsible with it?
Furthermore, as political and social systems in Belgium are being influenced by this humanist perspective, the concept of suicide transforms from misguided to chic. Secular politicians now dominate the political sphere and legislate for greater autonomy in death, and oncologist and professor Wim Distelmans discusses the topic of euthanasia with teenagers over pastries and coffee. With the taboo alleviated, the right to die doesn’t exclude you or your family from high society. The fear of death even in its lowest form is replaced by the right to choose.
Death is not utopic. Thomas More’s “Utopia” asks us, “Why don’t you break out and escape to a better world?” However, when death is mired with corruption and a lack of responsibility, we must revisit the discussion entirely.
We cannot allow this lack of transparency to continue, otherwise we may as well take responsibility for the untimely deaths of those on the precipice of something truly great.