Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Cultural suicide by...suicide?

On December 14th of last year, two brothers--twins, actually--were euthanized in Brussels, Belgium:
Distraught about going blind, 45-year-old deaf twin brothers from Belgium chose to be euthanized because they couldn't bear not to see one another, according to reports from Flanders.  
Marc and Eddy Verbessem of Putte died Dec. 14 by lethal injection at Brussels University Hospital. Voluntary euthanasia has been legal in Belgium since September 2002.
Their elder brother and parents were with them, just before the end. There is little doubt that they were facing a hard future, that they would require a great deal of help. I cannot rightly say how I would feel if I found myself in a such a situation; I can imagine circumstances wherein I might want to end my own life, so I don't want diminish their perspective and their choice.

That said, the idea of voluntary eunthanasia (or assisted suicide)--sponsored by the state--troubles me greatly. Many argue that such a program is both just and humane, that it allows people the ability to end their own lives with dignity, as opposed to doing the same via means that may be painful, gruesome, and not always effective (thus possibly creating a situation where one is even worse off than before).

The Belgian law, as noted above, has been in force since 2002.  A similar law was enacted in Switzerland in 2003, in the Netherlands in 2001, and in Luxembourg in 2009. The laws in these four nations are not the only ones that allow assisted suicide, but they are--by far--the most open and extensive. They permit individuals to essentially make their case, to convince doctors that they are or soon will be suffering terribly, either physically or psychologically. In the United States, both Oregon and Washington have laws allowing assisted suicide, but those eligible are terminally ill patients only who have little time left to live.

This report from the European Institute of Bioethics gives an overview of the law in Belgium, how it works, how it has been applied, and various statistics in that regard for the past ten years. Of particular note are the numbers of assisted suicides under this law in each year:
2003 = 235 declared cases of euthanasia
2004 = 349 declared cases of euthanasia
2005 = 393 declared cases of euthanasia
2006 = 429 declared cases of euthanasia
2007 = 495 declared cases of euthanasia
2008 = 704 declared cases of euthanasia
2009 = 822 declared cases of euthanasia
2010 = 953 declared cases of euthanasia
2011 = 1133 declared cases of euthanasia
That's a pretty obvious trend. And one can't help but notice how the numbers jump in 2008, as compared to 2007, and continue going up rapidly after that point. Of course, this coincides with the world-wide recession. But even apart from that, the numbers are still large. Belgium was already one of the countries with the most suicides per capita. One can't help but assume this law has pushed Belgium higher on that list. And indeed, data compiled from 2006 to 2009 suggests Belgium has--far and away--the highest suicide rate of any first-world nation, certainly of any European nation.


I can't say I know--with certainty--the answer to this question, but it is most certainly one that should be asked. Beyond that, however, is the issue that we started with: state-sponsored assisted suicide. Is it a good thing, a noble thing, or not? I noted some of the obvious arguments offered in defense of it. And truth be told, these arguments are not easy to overcome; we do, after all, own our bodies, each of us is responsible for our own lives. If we no longer want to live them, why should we not be able to bring them to an end?

But really, suicide is always an option. Outlawing suicide has never--and will never--prevent it. If someone is truly determined to end his or her own life, they will likely succeed. The question: should the state help them along their way, or not?

My own opinion is that no, the state should not be involved in such things, at all. Such laws and programs degrade people, degrade society, degrade culture. In 1895, Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow was published, which included a story I've mentioned before:
H.P. Lovecraft was far from the first writer to dabble in the theme of madness, of course. One of his chief influences was a writer named Robert W. Chambers, who--in 1895--published a collection of loosely connected short stories entitled The King in Yellow. The first story in the collection is entitled "The Repairer of Reputations," and concerns a man who sustains a head injury and is eventually revealed to be stark raving mad.
The last poses something of a problem for the reader:
...The story is told in the first person from the point of view of the insane man, one Hildred Castaigne. Thus, every detail the narrator shares, every observation he makes may not be reflective of reality, at all.
The overarching theme of the book and the various stories in it is madness (caused by reading the forbidden book The King in Yellow), but a secondary theme is that of decay. Many of the stories involve people living in obvious states of such; Chambers' vision is dystopian to some extent (the stories are in the near future), reflecting the angst of the late 19th century. But "The Repairer" seems to begin on a positive note, as the narrator extols the virtues of the United States in the year 1920. A sample:
Toward the end of the year 1920 the government of the United States had practically completed the programme adopted during the last months of President Winthrop's administration. The country was apparently tranquil...

Everywhere good architecture was replacing bad, and even in New York a sudden craving for decency had swept away a great portion of the existing horrors. Streets had been widened, properly paved, and lighted, trees had been planted, squares laid out, elevated structures demolished, and underground roads built to replace them. The new government buildings and barracks were fine bits of architecture, and the long system of stone quays which completely surrounded the island had been turned into parks, which proved a godsend to the population. The subsidizing of the state theatre and state opera brought its own reward. The United States National Academy of Design was much like European institutions of the same kind. Nobody envied the Secretary of Fine Arts either his cabinet position or his portfolio. The Secretary of Forestry and Game Preservation had a much easier time, thanks to the new system of National Mounted Police. We had profited well by the latest treaties with France and England; the exclusion of foreign-born Jews as a measure of national self-preservation, the settlement of the new independent negro state of Suanee, the checking of immigration, the new laws concerning naturalization, and the gradual centralization of power in the executive all contributed to national calm and prosperity.
Note what is being highlighted: the expansion of state power, the movement towards an authoritarian government with large public works projects and state control of things from art to race. But the key moment comes in 1920 when the first "Government Lethal Chamber" is opened in New York City (my boldface):
It was, I remember, the 13th day of April, 1920, that the first Government Lethal Chamber was established on the south side of Washington Square, between Wooster Street and South Fifth Avenue...

The Governor was finishing his reply to the short speech of the Surgeon-General. I heard him say: "The laws prohibiting suicide and providing punishment for any attempt at self-destruction have been repealed. The government has seen fit to acknowledge the right of man to end an existence which may have become intolerable to him, through physical suffering or mental despair. It is believed that the community will be benefited by the removal of such people from their midst. Since the passage of this law, the number of suicides in the United States has not increased. Now that the government has determined to establish a Lethal Chamber in every city, town, and village in the country, it remains to be seen whether or not that class of humans, creatures from whose desponding ranks new victims of self-destruction fall daily will accept the relief thus provided." He paused, and turned to the white Lethal Chamber. The silence in the street was absolute. "There a painless death awaits him who can no longer bear the sorrows of this life. If death is welcome, let him seek it here." Then, quickly turning to the military aid of the President's household, he said, "I declare the Lethal Chamber open"
Now consider this in context of what had come before, the extended praises from the narrator about the state of things in the nation. Everything seems great, according to the narrator. Why would the country need a host of such chambers throughout the land? Why, indeed. Remember, the narrator cannot be trusted in his descriptions. Thus, it is likely that all is not as it seems in the land. The nation is not happy and prosperous; exactly the opposite. The Lethal Chambers are perhaps filling a desperate need. The words of the Governor are as spoken, there is a class of people living lives devoid of hope and they are being offered a "way out," not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of the rest of society. Like Jews and "Negroes" discussed in the first bit, the state is systematically ostracizing this portion of society by enticing them to end their miserable lives.

This is not a society to emulate, it is a society--a civilization--in decline, decaying before our very eyes. It's "greatness" is apparent only to the narrator who is, again, stark raving mad.

I recognize that the intent behind the laws in Belgium and other European countries is not to rid society of undesirables; the intent is most certainly a noble one. But it is nonetheless a product of a culture at a crossroads, at the very least. Rather than holding up and cherishing life, such laws treat existence as mundane, as something that can be freely set aside for reasons that seem to be, well, potentially weak, if not outright wrong-headed. How long 'til a broken heart is a sufficient reason--and therefore a legal justification--for assisted suicide?

Life can be hard, can be painful. But life is still precious, in my opinion. Fleeting moments of joy more than compensate one for moments of misery. There are no doubt people who truly feel they have no choice, who cannot bear to continue on, but the state should not go looking for these people, and it certainly shouldn't be trying to drum up business in that regard. And I think that is exactly what these laws will ultimately do.

Cheers, all.


  1. Wow. If you contrast this with various quality of life/happiness measurements, Belgium is pretty high up there. Take a look: http://www.gfmag.com/tools/global-database/ne-data/11940-happiest-countries.html#axzz2I6k8GdZQ

  2. Belgium is as #107 on that list, just below the U.S. On the OECD list, it's at #7 (again, right by the U.S.). But then, that list is based primarily on standards of living and is dominated by Western Europe. This isn't so much about where things are, but where they are headed.