Is death Programmable?

08/12/2023

That is the question facing our society, whilst some people are dreaming of being able to control the day and the circumstances of their death, via euthanasia or assisted suicide. In the context of a series of opinion polls, Pierre Jova, a journalist, travelled to Belgium on several occasions to witness the “End of Life” militant forum between December 2022 and April 2023, i.e. at the same time as the Citizens’ Convention on the end of life was organised in France.

He has released a short essay on the subject published by “Le Seuil” under their “Libelle” collection, whose purpose is to alert, inform, and challenge. His ambition was to provide the readers with “facts to enlighten their thinking” on the touchy subject of the end of life. The publication devotes much space to first-hand accounts by family members of euthanised people, carers, euthanasia supporters. His account is based essentially on examples in Belgium, but it includes a few notable cases in Switzerland and Canada.

Euthanasia in Belgium: Consensus or taboo?

The law on euthanasia would, we are told, enjoy a consensus, as our Belgian neighbours boast of their ability to compromise. But in fact, the institutional and linguistic complexity in Belgium, combined with a less developed culture for debate compared with France, tends to suggest that this pseudo unanimity could in fact be more of a collective taboo. Certain figures are matter for concern… Thus, on 13th February 2014, euthanasia for minors was adopted by the Chamber of Representatives following a mere two half-days of debate; the splitting of Bruxelles-Hal-Vilvorde between Flemish and French-speakers, on the other hand was debated over for ten years!

It is also worth remembering that euthanasia is declared by doctors as “death from natural causes”, thus masking the obvious specific nature of medically administered death. Since it is legal, it is quite complicated to express any doubt, to challenge certain practices, or even to suggest that the consequent grief may be particularly difficult to bear: “Beyond its normalisation, euthanasia leaves behind indelible scars in families. Some of them put a cap on their deep discomfort, precisely due to the prevalent discourse”, according to Pierre Jova. The law does not include any obligation to consult with the entourage, which in some cases can lead to quite dramatic situations: for instance, the man who learned that his 88-year-old mother was euthanised in her care home without her family or her carers being informed…

The Belgian example, a wake-up call for France 

Very quickly, mental suffering was added to physical pain as a criterion for qualifying for euthanasia. Pierre Jova draws attention to the notion, often mentioned, of “incurability”: can one truly abandon all hope of recovery in the case of an existential discomfort, or mental suffering? He quotes a notable example of a suffering person, who managed to regain a will to live thanks to therapy, but who remained fragile, and was “trapped” by a previous decision to resort to euthanasia, and who was unable to go back on the decision since a date had been allocated. “Freedom is illusory when the spirit is captive of a morbid process. » 

The argument, often put forward, of strict control of the practice of euthanasia can also be seriously challenged since it is well known that euthanasia is declared subsequent to the supervisory commission, which itself is largely comprised of pro-euthanasia militants and doctors who practice euthanasia. However, if there were ever an irreversible “medical” act, it would indeed be euthanasia! A great number of euthanasia are in fact performed clandestinely, and pass through the net…

Help to die or help to live? 

Euthanasia, which was adopted in Belgium on the same day as a law establishing palliative care as a right, is however the result of a completely opposite logic. What greater paternalistic medical act indeed than the administration of death to one’s patient? In March 2023, a Canadian from Quebec by the name of Robert Corbeil testified: he is not eligible for palliative care at home but however, a nurse informed him that he could have medical assistance in dying (the term used in Canada for euthanasia)!

In France, the debate on euthanasia is taking place at the same time as the debate … on pensions! Militants from the left-wing LFI party are against the idea of a public discussion on euthanasia, arguing: “Before their end of life, surely people are more interested in enjoying a happy retirement and being cared for as and when required in a local state hospital?”

This prospect is in fact corroborated by what Pierre Jova observed through several conversations, i.e. the omnipresence of social motives in requests for euthanasia. Through fear of being a financial burden on family members, or even pressure applied by heirs: for instance, a man who obtained validation from a Swiss doctor for assisted suicide due to “A significantly restricted quality of life caused by macular degeneration due to old age”, but especially who was widowed and penniless, living in a house which he did not own. The man’s brother, dumbfounded, suggested: “I suppose he had taken a commitment with his wife’s children to leave the house.”

Instead of programming death, it would be better to put fraternity back to the heart of our societies 

In Belgium, it has become quite common to have someone in the family who has been euthanised. Amélie, who lives in Liège, could not hide her emotion from the author when showing him the announcement card which she received in her letter-box: Her step-sister and step-brother were announcing the date of their forthcoming euthanasia. But setting the day for formalising farewells is not a solution, according to Pierre Jova, for whom “no amount of play-acting can replace the ordeal of truth in unpredictability. He proposes an ethic of fraternity, which would place relationship and the link between generations at the very heart of our society.

The author concludes by recalling that dignity “must not be confused with appearances” and it is up to us to make it clear to the most vulnerable through “the energy devoted to reminding them every day of the infinite value of their presence”.

For further reading, refer to all our publications on the end of life.

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