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The ethical nightmare we won’t confront

Assisted dying campaigners. Credit: Getty

Assisted dying campaigners. Credit: Getty

June 7, 2019   4 mins

Nothing pleases some people more than when others get something wrong. The Germans even have a word for it.

Naomi Wolf was on the receiving end of it recently. It emerged, in the course of a live broadcast, that she had made a serious mistake in interpreting some of the evidence which she had marshalled to defend the argument of her new book. And gosh how people enjoyed it.

People on social media, with little real interest in Wolf and her oeuvre, joyfully shared the audio clip of her being informed of her error. As it happens, Wolf dealt with it graciously. She did not rail, storm, deny or prevaricate. Most important of all, she did not continue to defend it after it had become clear it was no longer defensible (a most common habit of the age). Instead, she said that she would like to address where her research had gone wrong.

In general, people do not react like this when their errors are revealed. And some errors have more serious implications. So it was this week with the news, and then correction, about a tragic case from the Netherlands.

The story broke of a 17-year old Dutch girl called Noa Pothoven who had been euthanased at an ‘end of life clinic’. In a number of countries (including Italy where I was at the time), this was front page news. It was obvious why: this is exactly the sort of story which epitomises the fear felt by those who oppose the introduction of euthanasia. Outrage swept through social media.

But before the day was out, the story had been debunked. Local media reported that, rather than having died at a euthanasia clinic in The Hague, Pothoven had in fact died at home in Arnhem on 2 June after refusing to eat or drink.

Thus was a massive media misinterpretation and over-reaction corrected by cooler minds. But the underlying ethical nightmare lingers, playing on the fears of rational minds. It was all too plausible. And while people point out the media’s mistakes, no one’s addressing the underlying problem.

I have researched and written about the issue of euthanasia in Belgium and the Netherlands a number of times. It is particularly striking how relatively few people are willing to take on the deep challenges that the whole issue throws up.

Those who do, tend to be those who hold the traditional views of the Catholic church on beginning and end of life issues (as the prominence of the Pothoven story in the Italian media proved). To those who regard life as God-given, sacred, and not to be stopped from the moment that life originates, the whole question of euthanasia is recognised to be a profound challenge to their view of life and its purpose.

Outside of this, the euthanasia debate has become mired in some of the most shallow and prevalent attitudes of the age. These include, though are not limited to, arguments couched in the language of ‘human rights’, as though the ability to die at a time of one’s own choice is not merely a human right but the ultimate, perhaps final, such right. For who is anyone else – let alone the law of any land – to refuse us the right to such a final demonstration of autonomy over our own bodies and lives?

When Lord Falconer attempted to pass an ‘assisted dying’ bill in the British Parliament in 2014, it was presented as a humanitarian necessity: one which partially solved a medical – you might say terminal – problem. Although that bill was eventually unsuccessful, the tone in which it was argued is now familiar in those countries, such as Australia, where the euthanasia issue has been recently debated. The argument focuses on people with terminal illness, suffering unbearably at the very end of their lives, and is generally supported (or at least leaned towards) by those who favour the reduction of suffering unconnected with any wider system of ethics beyond that.

This was not the case with Pothoven. She was clearly a very unhappy and unfortunate young woman. Her friends say that she had made repeated efforts to kill herself, had suffered severe depression and also suffered from anorexia. It also appears that she approached one of the ‘end of life’ clinics in the Netherlands last year, and that they had judged her too young to die. But for how long will this remain the case?

Since euthanasia was legalised in the Netherlands and Belgium, both countries have seen a remorseless push on two fronts. The first is to broaden the recognition of what should be deemed to be a ‘terminal illness’. Just last year a 29-year old Dutch woman called Aurelia Brouwers was euthanised despite suffering no terminal physical condition. Brouwers suffered from mental illness.

The other direction in which the euthanasia argument spills out is in the lowering of the age of those able to be euthanised. In the Netherlands and Belgium, campaign groups have called for a lowering of legal limits for euthanasia from the moment that the practice was first permitted. Belgium has allowed children as young as nine who are suffering from terminal illnesses to be euthanised.

These are two vast ethical traps which require far deeper consideration than a mere ‘media gets something wrong’ story allows.

The lowering of the age at which people can be euthanised is, in many ways, the simpler of the two problems. Most countries have age-limits on a range of activities, and it’s quite possible euthanasia could be kept within the same restrictions as access to tobacco or alcohol. This could allay any fears about desperately miserable teenagers.

But the far more serious problem, which always creeps up on societies which permit euthanasia, is the line between mental and physical illness. This is a primed bomb.

In most Western European countries, there is an increasing drive to view physical and mental illness as having parity. In the UK, the government has repeatedly said that it wishes to take mental illness issues as seriously as physical illness issues. Everywhere the melding of the two is (rightly or wrongly) going on. But in a society which permits euthanasia, things get more complicated; the bomb explodes. For who is to say that a severely depressed person in their 20s is not to be judged to be in as serious a condition as somebody with cancer of the same age?

I have yet to find anyone willing to explore this boundary. Most look away, postpone or try to find false consolation in mocking reporting errors like those in the Pothoven case.

In the long-term, this is a mistake. Such serious ethical matters must be addressed at length as well as in depth. It might be fake news today, but tomorrow it could be a reality. Yes, the factual errors of this case need to be corrected. But to simply dismiss the case, without acknowledging its desperate possibilities, is a reckless move which will have long and severe consequences. There’ll be little schadenfreude if we get this one wrong.

Douglas Murray is an author and journalist.


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