The Lower House of the Belgium Parliament has adopted a bill that extends the “right to die,” or “right to euthanasia” to minors, those under 18-years of age. The bill is an extension of a prior law, currently in effect, which allows adults, 18 and over, the same right to euthanasia in those cases where the subject is suffering from chronic, unremitting, unbearable pain and suffering, physical or mental.
The new bill relating to minors is replete with conditions to assure that it not be invoked haphazardly or without sufficient time and consideration to determine its applicability. The youth must be able to appreciate and understand what euthanasia is and what it means – a condition which would appear to exclude any child below the age of reason. The decision to hasten death also requires the full agreement of parents or guardians – a condition which calls into mind a potentially difficult situation when autocratic parents seek to punish a troublesome and depressed teen.
Leave it to the residents of those liberal, progressive, low countries, long known for their libertarian, if not wholly libertine world view to push the boundaries of an issue made sensitive by the confluence of ultimate issues: life, death, youth, capacity to choose, right to choose, government oversight of the most personal matters, jurisdiction over the person and the person’s jurisdiction over the body, etc. It is a hot item, charged with emotions, and one must step out of his or her personal cultural or faith-based matrix, Americans have about 112, to look at the Belgian legislation with a cold eye.
As with the domestic debate concerning abortion that also deals with a confluence of ultimate issues, cast in the language of rights, guaranteed to inflame passions, the Belgian law moves over the valence of at least three distinct considerations:
The first consideration; fundamental, essential and specific to abortion, is whether the fetus is or is not a person, a human being, entitled to all the rights privileges and well-being afforded persons in this society. The answer to this question rests, at least in part, on even more difficult assessments: How does one arrive at an answer to the first question? What is the method of inquiry? What is the role of faith and religion in that inquiry? What is the role of science? What is the role of legislation and the role of the courts? What is the role of history and precedent? Assuming for sake of argument that a method of inquiry is agreed upon and the resulting answer asserts the presence of life, then what kind of “life” is present, human, pre-human, etc. Finally, depending upon what manner of life is deemed present, when does such “life,” human, pre-human, etc., begin?
Complicated? Beyond complicated, and this is but the first step.
The second consideration entertains questions concerning the morality of terminating the “life” present in the womb, be it, him or her, a slurry of cells, a fetus, a person, an inchoate person, a yet-to-be-person, a yet-to-be-born-person, fully human, not human or yet to be fully human. The nature of the “life” controls the morality of what one is allowed to do or prohibited from doing as regards the “life” deemed present in the womb.
Even assuming that something as subjective as “morality” can be agreed upon, the more prescient issue is whether the conduct, be it deemed to be moral, amoral, immoral, is or is not criminal, thereby invoking government oversight and involvement.
What authority will the people of a sovereign country grant its governing body to allow, prohibit, oversee, monitor, control, or even ignore the act itself, an act, which might be deemed to be criminal as well as immoral?
Finally there is a fourth consideration which might trump, perhaps has trumped, all of the above, and that issue is the distinction to be drawn between a government’s jurisdiction over the person versus a person’s jurisdiction over his or her own body. Yes, a government can require bikers to wear helmets, but does it have, or should it have, the power to compel a woman to bring a pregnancy to term by criminalizing the safest means of terminating a pregnancy?
It is important to note that the issue here is not whether one favors or abhors abortion, favors a woman’s right to choose, or the unborn’s right to life. This issue is more finely drawn and lies within the relationship between a government and the people governed. The issue is what authority the people, through its legislators, will grant the government the power to oversee, monitor and control the most personal aspects of one’s life.
Analyzing Belgium’s euthanasia law in accord with the above follows:
Adult or minor, able-bodied, disabled, challenged, mentally or physically, in Belgium the subject of its euthanasia laws is a person. The Belgian laws do not entertain the ugly notion, reminiscent of Nazi Germany, that a person’s mental or physical condition is determinant of the person’s very nature. Also, the minor must possess sufficient capacity to appreciate and understand what euthanasia is, what it means and what the consequences portend. Second, given that the subject is a person, Belgium has determined that under certain circumstances the subject’s suicide is not a criminal act, nor is it a crime for a person to assist and enable the subject’s suicide.
Is all of this a grim overstep in one low country’s progressive agenda, or is it an enlightened response to a modern and discernible movement, made in concert with medical marvels, to extend life at all costs.
The purpose of the Belgian laws might be laudatory in that they seek to alleviate suffering when all anesthetics have failed. The problem, however, is that suicide does not relieve suffering – it extinguishes suffering as it extinguishes the person who suffers.
In America the final exam for which all must sit is death and dying. For the most part, the people of America, the USA, the land of the free and the home of the brave, prepare for this exam with the same triumphalism they enter most ill-chosen conflicts – with an admixture of over-confidence, denial and outright disdain.
Some are devoted to the cult of life, one more media-construct, which seeks to extend life at all costs, the result often being the husk of a person laden with tubes and IV’s under a white sheet that could double as a shroud. Even with good intent, medical technology, marvel upon marvel, has conspired with the public’s personal and corporate denial of death to foster this cult of perpetual life. It’s unspoken, it’s never discussed in polite company, but America’s great myth and secret organizing principle has become this: If you become rich enough, you might not have to die.
Others, possessed of a more realistic view of the “final curtain,” entertain topics concerned with the ultimate issues and invite ridicule for their efforts. In a society devoted to the perfectibility of the human form, promising immortality by subtext, any counter-argument that even alludes to the undeniable fact of death is too easily deemed to be an endorsement as opposed to an acknowledgment.
In either case death will not be appeased. When the time comes, when the bell tolls, the boatman will load his boat, will pay the passage with pennies and will row his cargo to the dark land on the far shore of the dark river. The only question is who appoints the time to come, and who tolls the bell.
By Mike Hogan