By Rachel Aviv
In Belgium, euthanasia is embraced as an emblem of enlightenment and progress, a sign that the country has extricated itself from its Catholic, patriarchal roots. Distelmans, who was brought up as a Catholic and then rejected the Church, told me that his work is inspired by an aversion to all forms of paternalism. “Who am I to convince patients that they have to suffer longer than they want?” he said.
Belgium was the second country in the world, after the Netherlands, to decriminalize euthanasia; it was followed by Luxembourg, in 2009, and, this year, by Canada and Colombia. Switzerland has allowed assisted suicide since 1942. The United States Supreme Court has recognized that citizens have legitimate concerns about prolonged deaths in institutional settings, but in 1997 it ruled that death is not a constitutionally protected right, leaving questions about assisted suicide to be resolved by each state. Within months of the ruling, Oregon passed a law that allows doctors to prescribe lethal drugs for patients who have less than six months to live. In 2008, Washington adopted a similar law; Montana decriminalized assisted suicide the year after; and Vermont legalized it in 2013.
The right-to-die movement has gained momentum at a time of anxiety about the graying of the population; people who are older than sixty-five represent the fastest-growing demographic in the United States, Canada, and much of Europe. But the laws seem to be motivated less by the desires of the elderly than by the concerns of a younger generation, whose members derive comfort from the knowledge that they can control the end of their lives. Diane Meier, a professor of geriatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York, and one of the leading palliative-care physicians in the country, told me that “the movement to legalize assisted suicide is driven by the ‘worried well,’ by people who are terrified of the unknown and want to take back control.” She added, “That is not to say that the medical profession doesn’t do a horrible job of protecting people from preventable suffering.” Like most doctors who specialize in palliative care, a field focussed on quality of life for patients with severe and terminal illnesses, she thinks legalizing assisted suicide is unnecessary. “The notion that if people don’t kill themselves they’re going to die on a ventilator in the hospital would be humorous if it weren’t so serious,” she said. She believes that the angst propelling the movement would be diminished if patients had greater access to palliative care and if doctors were more attentive to their patients’ psychological suffering.
In Oregon and Switzerland, studies have shown that people who request death are less motivated by physical pain than by the desire to remain autonomous. This pattern of reasoning was exemplified by Brittany Maynard, a twenty-nine-year-old newlywed who moved to Oregon last year so that she could die on her own terms rather than allowing her brain cancer to take its course. Her story appeared on the cover of People, which described her as having the “soul of an adventurer and the heart of a warrior.” She became the poster child for assisted death—a far more palatable one than Jack Kevorkian, who had previously filled that role. Unlike the patients whom Kevorkian attended to with his makeshift “suicide machine,” Maynard appeared neither passive nor vulnerable. Since her death, seven months ago, lawmakers in twenty-three U.S. states have introduced bills that would make it legal for doctors to help people die.
Opponents have warned for years that legalization will lead to a “slippery slope,” but in Oregon fewer than nine hundred people have used lethal prescriptions since the law was passed, and they represent the demographic that is least likely to be coerced: they are overwhelmingly white, educated, and well-off. In Belgium and in the Netherlands, where patients can be euthanized even if they do not have a terminal illness, the laws seem to have permeated the medical establishment more deeply than elsewhere, perhaps because of the central role granted to doctors: in the majority of cases, it is the doctor, not the patient, who commits the final act. In the past five years, the number of euthanasia and assisted-suicide deaths in the Netherlands has doubled, and in Belgium it has increased by more than a hundred and fifty per cent. Although most of the Belgian patients had cancer, people have also been euthanized because they had autism, anorexia, borderline personality disorder, chronic-fatigue syndrome, partial paralysis, blindness coupled with deafness, and manic depression. In 2013, Wim Distelmans euthanized a forty-four-year-old transgender man, Nathan Verhelst, because Verhelst was devastated by the failure of his sex-change surgeries; he said that he felt like a monster when he looked in the mirror. “Farewell, everybody,” Verhelst said from his hospital bed, seconds before receiving a lethal injection.
The laws seem to have created a new conception of suicide as a medical treatment, stripped of its tragic dimensions. Patrick Wyffels, a Belgian family doctor, told me that the process of performing euthanasia, which he does eight to ten times a year, is “very magical.” But he sometimes worries about how his own values might influence a patient’s decision to die or to live. “Depending on communication techniques, I might lead a patient one way or the other,” he said. In the days before and after the procedure, he finds it difficult to sleep. “You spend seven years studying to be a doctor, and all they do is teach you how to get people well—and then you do the opposite,” he told me. “I am afraid of the power that I have in that moment.”
What do you think about the right-to-die movement? When should people with a non-terminal illness be helped to die?