April 24, 2021

The French National Assembly is currently considering a proposed law “giving and guaranteeing the right to a free and chosen end of life”. The first article of the bill proposes a “rapid and painless death” with “medical assistance”. Since 2005, France has had a “let die” law that permits “deep and continuous sedation until death”. 

Proposition one: no one wants to die. As a rule, we prefer a diminished life to no life at all; because we think we will always have the little pleasures of life. And are there any pleasures other than little ones? That is a subject worth exploring.

Proposition two: no one wants to suffer. Suffer physically, that is. Moral suffering has its charms, it can even generate aesthetic material (as I have discovered for myself). Physical suffering is pure hell, devoid of interest and meaning, from which no lessons can be drawn. Life has been sketchily (and falsely) described as a quest for pleasure; it is, more accurately, an avoidance of suffering; and more or less everyone, given a choice between unbearable suffering and death, chooses death.

Proposition three, the most important of all: physical suffering can be eliminated. At the beginning of the 19th century, morphine was discovered. Many similar substances have appeared since then. At the end of the 19th century, hypnosis was rediscovered; it remains little used in France.

Ignorance of these facts might explain the alarming opinion polls which support euthanasia (96% in favour, if I remember correctly). Ninety six percent of people think that they are being asked the question: “Would you rather be helped to die or would you like to spend what remains of your days in appalling suffering”. The other 4% know all about morphine and hypnosis. Those proportions seem about right to me.

I’m going to resist launching into an argument for the decriminalisation of drugs here (and not just “soft” drugs); that is a subject on which I yield to the wisdom-filled observations of the excellent Patrick Eudeline.

Partisans of euthanasia like to gargle on words whose meanings they distort to such an extent that they should no longer even have the right to utter them. In the case of “compassion,” the lie is palpable. When it comes to “dignity”, things are more insidious. We have seriously deviated from the Kantian definition of dignity by substituting, little by little, the physical being for the moral one (and maybe even denying the very notion of a moral being), substituting the human capacity for action with a shallower more animal concept of good health — turned into a sort of pre-condition of all possibility of human dignity, even maybe its only true meaning.

Put in this way, I have rarely had the impression that I have manifested extraordinary dignity at any time in my life; and I do not have the impression that this is likely to improve. I am going to end up losing my hair and my teeth. My lungs will be reduced to shreds. I will become steadily more or less impotent, more or less incapable, perhaps incontinent and possibly even blind. Once a certain stage of degradation has been reached, I will inevitably end up telling myself (and I will be lucky if it is not someone else pointing it out to me) that I no longer have any dignity.

Well, so what? If that is dignity, one can very well do without it. On the other hand, everyone more or less needs to feel themselves necessary or loved; and, failing that, esteemed—even in my case admired. It is true that can also be lost; but one cannot do much about that; others play in this respect the determining role. And I can easily imagine myself asking to die in the hope that others reply: “Oh no, no. Please stay with us a little longer.” That would be very much my style. And I admit this without the slightest shame. The conclusion, I am afraid, is inescapable: I am a human-being utterly devoid of all dignity.

Part of the usual sales pitch for euthanasia consists in maintaining that France is “lagging behind” other countries. The preamble for the bill that will shortly be proposed is in this respect comical: looking for countries that France is allegedly “lagging behind,” they can only find Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg; frankly, I am not impressed.

The rest of the preamble consists of stitching together citations from Anne Bert, presented as “admirably forceful”, but which have the unfortunate effect of raising my suspicions. For example, when she maintains: “No, euthanasia does not fall under the heading of eugenics.” On the contrary, it is obvious that the partisans of both the ideas are exactly the same people, from the “divine” Plato to the Nazis. Likewise, when she adds, “No, the Belgian law on euthanasia has not encouraged inheritance theft.” I admit that I had not thought of this, but now that she mentions it…

Immediately afterwards, she lets the cat right out of the bag by claiming that euthanasia “is not a solution of an economic nature”. There are, however, indeed certain sordid arguments that one only hears from “economists,” insofar as that term has any meaning. None other than Jacques Attali has insisted, in an already dated work, on the cost to the public purse of maintaining the lives of very old people; it is hardly surprising that Alain Minc, more recently, has gone in the same direction, Attali just being a stupider version of Minc (without even speaking of that clown François de Closets, who is something like the performing monkey of the other two, their Hanswurst).

Catholics will do their best to resist, but, sad to say, we have more or less got used to the idea that the Catholics always lose. Muslims and Jews, on this subject as on other subjects deemed “societal” (that ugly word), think exactly the same as Catholics; the media are generally in strong agreement about hiding this fact. I do not have a lot of illusions; these faiths will end up by giving way and submitting to the yoke of “republican law”. Their priests, rabbis, or imams will in future visit euthanasia candidates to tell them that yes, it is an ugly business, but tomorrow will be better, and that even if people have abandoned them, God will take care of them. Let us be honest about that.

From the point of view of the Lamas, the situation is without doubt even worse. Any attentive reader of the Bardo Thodol knows that death throes are a particularly significant moment in a man’s life, for they offer him a final chance, even in the case of unfavourable karma, to free himself from samsara, the cycle of rebirth. Any early interruption of death-agonies is thus a frankly criminal act; unfortunately, Buddhists rarely intervene in public debate.

There remain only the doctors, in whom I had placed little hope, doubtless because I am not very familiar with them; but it is undeniable that some of them resist and refuse to kill their patients and that they will remain perhaps the last barrier to euthanasia. I do not know where they get this courage; maybe it is only respect for the Hippocratic oath: “Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course”. It is possible. The public uttering of this oath must have been a significant moment in their lives. In any case their struggle is an admirable one, even if it is a struggle “for honour”.

The honour of a civilisation is not exactly nothing. But really something else is at stake; from the anthropological point of view. It is a question of life and death. And on this point I am going to have to be very explicit: when a country — a society, a civilisation — gets to the point of legalising euthanasia, it loses in my eyes all right to respect. It becomes henceforth not only legitimate, but desirable, to destroy it; so that something else — another country, another society, another civilisation — might have a chance to arise.

This essay appeared in Le Figaro on 5 April 2021. Translated for UnHerd by Dr Louis Betty