The nihilistic liberalism of assisted dying

If assisted dying is a medical treatment, then all are entitled to it – including convicted murderers.

The Belgian euthanasia drama has moved on in recent weeks. The convicted murderer and rapist Frank Van Den Bleeken had been seeking the right to be executed on the grounds he was ‘suffering unbearably’ from a life-long psychiatric condition. Van Den Bleeken complained in a television documentary that ‘my life has now absolutely no meaning. They may as well put a flower pot here.’ The Belgian Ministry for Justice consented to his request in September last year.

Early this month, Belgian justice minister Koen Geens announced that Van Den Bleeken’s assisted death was to take place on Sunday 11 January. But, on 6 January, Belgian doctors announced that they had halted the process. No reasons were given for the doctors’ decision.

British commentators were mainly aghast at what they saw as the reintroduction of the death penalty. Some objected to Van Den Bleeken’s death on the basis that he, as a prisoner, should not determine his own sentence. Others, such as barrister and ethicist Daniel Sokol, felt that Van Den Bleeken’s death would not be a voluntary act because he had been denied psychiatric treatment. Sokol also argued that ‘[a]llowing a prisoner, who is not terminally ill, to die by euthanasia has a whiff of the death penalty’. In other words, the same people who support Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill in the UK, as well as others who support right-to-die laws in the US, shuddered at the thought of granting the right to die to a prisoner.

Yet, the logic contained in the UK Assisted Dying Bill and the assisted dying laws in Oregon, Washington and Vermont dictates that Belgium should grant prisoners the right to die. Why? Because Falconer and the US lawmakers all define assisted dying as a medical treatment.

Indeed, every country and state where voluntary death of one sort or another is legal allows it only as a medical procedure – with the exception of Switzerland, where it is legal for anyone with good motives to assist a suicide. As the UK organisation Health Professionals for Assisted Dying (HPAD) notes:  ‘Assisted dying should be just one of many options at the end of life… Those wanting an assisted death should be supported by their healthcare professionals to die.’

Moreover, the criteria for who qualifies for an assisted suicide in Belgium is medically defined, as it is elsewhere, and is overseen and agreed by doctors. Even in Switzerland’s infamous Dignitas clinic, operations are overseen by a doctor and those who use the services are referred to as patients.

And why would anyone deny medical treatment to prisoners? As philosopher Rebecca Roache pointed out: ‘Prisoners, in any civilised country, are not denied access to medical treatment as part of their punishment. That Van den Bleeken has committed appalling crimes is a red herring.’

Belgium is the future

If death is viewed as an appropriate medical treatment, then Belgium’s decision to allow a much broader section of society to opt for assisted death is more logical than the arbitrary decision to restrict the option to those with six months or less to live. The reasons given by Oregon state for why people might want to opt for assisted suicide, as its several reports note, can apply to those without a terminal illness. Loss of autonomy – the principal reason – must be experienced by prisoners fairly often (1). If the patient determines whether suffering is unbearable, why place arbitrary, and some might say cruel, restrictions on the right to assisted death?

Of course, many would prefer a society that does not see death as an appropriate treatment option for those who are suffering. Some may still feel that life is not a prison to be escaped from, but a permanent opportunity, even for Van Den Bleeken and those with little time left. Many will believe that every human life, no matter how wretched, should be accorded some value.

The fact that death is seen as a therapeutic answer to existential problems speaks to society’s confusion and lack of confidence in resolving these problems in any other way. Van Den Bleeken should live so that he may perhaps one day understand the destructiveness of his crimes; this is as good a reason as any to reject capital punishment. But what about those people whose lives were wiped out by the nihilistic liberalism of the Low Countries, where death has been prescribed for everything from persistent tinnitus to loneliness or depression?

For supporters of the UK Assisted Dying Bill, the situation in Belgium should be a warning. In defining death as a medical treatment choice, we open ourselves up to the prospect of anyone in a state of suffering asserting his or her right to die.

Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland. His latest book, Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalisation, is published by Palgrave Macmillan. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

A demonstration against the Assisted Dying Bill is being held at 9.30am to 1pm on Friday 16 January outside the Houses of Parliament in London. See here for details.

(1) The other reasons given by recipients of assisted suicide in Oregon are, in order of importance: Less able to engage in activities making life enjoyably; becoming a burden on family, friends/caregivers; losing control of bodily functions; and loss of dignity.

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