The case of Tom Mortier shows how euthanasia advocates will never stop at the terminally ill

Godelieve De Troyer was euthanised by Belgium's 'doctor death' for severe depression. Her case must make us think twice about allowing assisted dying in Britain. 

Dr Kevin Yuill's recent opinion article published in the UK Telegraph reflects on the tragic death of Godelieve De Troyer and the consequent grief and bewilderment of her family, especially her son Tom Mortier. Yuill says:

"Tom Mortier never paid much attention to the discussion about voluntary death in his country. "I was like just about anyone else here in Belgium: I didn't care at all," he said. "If people want to die, it's probably their choice. It didn't concern me."

"But in April, 2012, ten years after the law changed to allow euthanasia, Mortier, a university lecturer, received a message at work. His 64-year-old mother, Godelieve De Troyer, who suffered from severe depression, had been euthanised the previous day. Would he be able to make the arrangements at the morgue?

"His mother had largely broken off contact with the family but had informed him by email three months earlier that she was looking into euthanasia. Mortier did not dream that her request would be taken seriously because she was in perfect physical health. After his mother's death, the doctor who gave her the injection assured Mortier that he was "absolutely certain" his mother didn't want to live anymore. The shock felt by Mortier at the sudden - and unnecessary - loss of his mother inspired him to become a leading campaigner against Belgian euthanasia law."

Yuill goes on to debunk the 'don't look at Belgium, look at Oregon' myth promoted by the pro-euthanasia & assisted suicide lobby in the UK, arguing that, in fact, the Belgium example is the parallel Britain must look to in assessing where any law may take that nation:

"They are wrong, of course. Belgium, not Oregon, is the future of assisted dying. In the US, a national campaign prioritizes the passage of assisted dying legislation across the country (with only three states currently permitting it). No one in any of the states which already have it will campaign to have the criteria extended to those who are not terminally ill for fear that it they would jeopardize the rolling campaign elsewhere.

"By contrast, advocates in the low countries have kept their foot on the pedal. The Dutch organization NVVE, which claims 155,000 members to Dignity's 25,000, campaigns for extension of euthanasia in the Netherlands. Their goals mention "social acceptance" and "recognition of free choice for the ending of life (and assistance thereby) as a human right". One of their initiatives was a campaign to extend the right to die to all those over 70 who are "tired of life". The Belgian equivalent, ADMD, similarly calls for the right of all to renounce life."

As Yuill and others have said before, if this is all about suffering, then no putative boundaries make any sense at all:

"And if death is a medically-provided treatment for suffering, Belgium is surely much more humane than Oregon because it does not restrict medical treatment to selective groups of sufferers. De Troyer's euthanasia, according to the logic of assisted dying, was the right thing to do. So is euthanising children with terminal illnesses whose parents request it, as Belgium recently allowed. Those suffering from loneliness, depression, or tinnitus, those not happy with their gender reassignment, can all find relief from their suffering with medically-facilitated death.

"This is the logical end of legalized assisted dying. There is no good reason to restrict it to the terminally ill. Pain, as has been often noted, does not come in the top five reasons why Oregonians opt for an assisted death. Those with terminal illnesses take their lives for the same existential reasons as many others who are not dying."

Yuill expands his argument pointing out the subjective nature of suffering that only the sufferer can really quantify. How can any law take that into account? It is not so much about choice for the individual as it is about others choosing to agree, to endorse and act upon a lethal course of action:

"Helping them is indeed the crux of the matter. If a person is determined enough to end their life, no one can stop them. But assisted dying is not really about the physical act of assistance. Those who seek an assisted death really want recognition of their suffering and moral approval for suicide. How do we respond? If a great artist, in a fit of depression, decides to destroy his works, we recognise his right to do so but neither approve his action nor assist him; we may even stop him in the hope that he sees sense. Similarly, to pre-approve or assist in the destruction of a human life denies that it has meaning to others. The question is not whether we allow people to kill themselves but whether we tell them it's okay."

Returning to De Troyer, Yuill summarizes:

"Perhaps the most chilling aspect of Mortier's story is the casual nature of the termination of the life of a human being. His mother's judge, jury and executioner, conveniently wrapped into one, informed her nearest and dearest in a message after the event. We are (rightly, in my view) appalled by the execution of even the most depraved killer after a lengthy and expensive trial with appeals lasting, on average, some 13 years. Even that system accords the shred of humanity left in such a debased human being more importance than the Belgian authorities did De Troyer.

"Death should not be a medical choice but a profound event to be treated with gravity, respect and sadness. That is the only way we honour the humanity in all of us. Tom Mortier's story - and all the other disturbing stories about voluntary death in the low countries - indicate the road on which the British bill will set us if it passes. The nihilistic liberalism evident in Belgium is the future of legalised assisted dying."

Dr 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.

Further Reading:

Depressed mother died by euthanasia in Belgium. Mortier challenges the law.
International gathering opposing euthanasia & assisted suicide Adelaide, South Australia
European Court challenge: Belgian doctor kills depressed woman by euthanasia.
Complaint against Belgium's lead euthanasia doctor