Recalling Euthanasia’s Legacy of Death

During a debate on the Senate floor in 1996, at the time of President Clinton’s veto of a bill to ban partial-birth abortion, there was an incident reported in an article in the Washington Post:

Not five feet away, Republican Senator, Rick Santorum turned to face the opposition and in a high, pleading voice cried out, “where do we draw the line? Some people have likened this procedure to an appendectomy. That’s not an appendix,” he shouted, pointing to a drawing of a fetus. “That is not a blob of tissue. It is a baby. It’s a baby.”  And then, impossibly, in an already hushed gallery, in one of those moments when the floor of the Senate looks like a stage set, with its rich wooden desks somehow too small for the matters at hand, the cry of a baby pierced the room, echoing across the chamber from an outside hallway.  No one mentioned the cry, but for a few second no one spoke at all.

On February 13, when the Belgian Chamber of Deputies approved by a vote of 86 to 44 an amendment to its 2002 euthanasia law, extending its provisions to include the killing of children, a man in the gallery cried out, “Murderers!”  Again, no one mentioned the cry, but there was an awkward silence until the man himself was silenced for exhibiting bad taste.  He had dared to remove the linguistic fig leaf from the euphemism “euthanasia.”  A euphemism covers shame, a timid confession by syntax rather than by sacrament, for a euphemism wants approval and not absolution.

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Others have cried out, including a faculty member of Leuven University, Tom Mortier, whose mother had been “euthanized” in April 2012 without his permission by Doctor Wim Distelmans because she was chronically depressed. Since then, legislators decided that children should share with adults a supposed right to be euthanized, when their present life is judged by the state, parents and the children themselves to be “unworthy of life.” This resonates with the well known language of two university men, the jurist Karl Binding and the psychiatrist Alfred Hoche, whose 1920 treatise “Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwertes Lebens” gave an academic veneer to the consequent and more impatient Nazi protocols for “destroying life unworthy of living.”  Soon enough, vehicles rounded up the unfit, adults and children, with covered windows and sealed doors so that those inside could not be seen or heard.  In 1941, a teenaged cousin of Pope Benedict XVI, with Downs Syndrome, was taken away in that fashion by “therapists” despite his family’s pleas and never to be seen again.

The twentieth century was littered with failed utopias called worker’s paradises and others thousand year reichs.  Saint Thomas More invented the term “Utopia” for his exercise in irony, a description of heaven on earth, possibly in some place he vaguely had heard now known as Brazil.  In it he describes its use of euthanasia by ingestion of laudanum.  Some have assumed that this, and other Utopian innovations, such as docility to miscreants and marriage of priests and even occasional women priests, were recommendation of the same More who sentenced heretics to death. A college textbook used in New York and evidently written by someone innocent of Greek, actually describes him as an early champion of euthanasia.  But his Utopia is seen through the eyes of  Raphael Hythlodaeus whose name means “dispenser of nonsense” and which might also be translated Binding or Hoche. More’s unspoken point is that this Utopia is Platonism carried to such an extreme that it does not connect with reality. After all, Utopia means “No Place” quite as another place More mentions, “Macarensis,” is “Happyland.” And he knew that bliss born of ignorance is stillborn. More would have understood that other sort of Christian, Milton:  “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

The Kingdom of Heaven is real and not a Utopia, and that is why the Christian can be neither a utopian nor a cynic. At the Versailles Conference, seated between Wilson and Clemenceau, David Lloyd George thought he was seated between Jesus Christ and Napoleon. But Jesus Christ was not a utopian, and Clemenceau was misunderstood as a cynic.  He was shrewder than that, and shrewd enough to invoke God with whom he had a tenuous relationship, saying of Wilson’s Fourteen Points: “Even the good Lord contented Himself with only ten commandments, and we should not try to improve upon them.” The abandonment of sense for sentimentality leads to dangerous territory, and we should always be cautious when we see political leaders receiving flowers from beribboned little girls and saying that all they do is  “for the children.”  In The Thanatos Syndrome, Walker Percy put it bluntly: “Kindness leads to the gas chamber.”

By high irony, what was “Bleeding Belgium” at the end of World War I has voted to bleed itself to death with an admixture of extravagant utopianism and cynicism. King Albert II, father of the new king, Philippe, hoped that his son would be “an inspiration for Europe” as he was fit for the job “emotionally and intellectually,” having been at the Belgian Royal Military Academy, Oxford, and Stanford. Philippe’s saintly uncle, King Baudouin abdicated for one day in 2002 rather than sign the original euthanasia bill.  The King of the Belgians now has only moral influence, but moral influence outlasts political influence, even if victims of power do not. If Baudouin’s nephew confounds expectations and refuses to give the Royal Assent, he will honor his uncle who asked parliament, “Does freedom of conscience apply to everyone except the King?”  Should he yield, his figurehead role will be so disfigured that his picture will serve a purpose only on the other side of the postage stamps.

The United Nations, if too cynical to persist in its foundational utopianism, but cynical enough to accuse the Catholic Church of encouraging child abuse, will now have to square the Belgian Law with its own 1959 Declaration on the Rights of the Child and its 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But that organization, perhaps esteemed more by the Holy See over the years than it has respected itself, is likely to continue to accommodate its own declarations to the exigencies of our culture of death.  After all, among the members of United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child are Thailand which hosts an active child sex slave trade, Uganda whose army enlists children, and Syria which kills children with poison gas.

This is not only Belgium’s problem. Immediately after February 13, a regular columnist in the Los Angeles Times wrote that “for a child facing death in the short term, and in agony, we as a society should enable the child’s right to die with the least amount of suffering…. Even if the concept chills the bones.”  That was only a short remove from 1991 when the New York Times bestseller list featured a book by the Hemlock Society on how to commit suicide. A chain of bookstores in New York listed it in its section on “Self-Improvement.” In 2003, the Hemlock Society changed its name to “Compassion and Choices.”

There is a macabre risibility about the Belgian provision that says that when parents and physicians decide to kill, “the child must be conscious of their decision and understand the meaning of euthanasia.” Our own Supreme Court held in Roper v. Simmons (2005) that the Eighth Amendment forbids the execution of offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed, since the capacity for full moral judgment is still formative in adolescence. Certainly it cannot be less so in childhood.

In 1943, Blessed Alois Andritzki, a twenty-eight year old priest of Dresden, was given a lethal injection in Dachau.  His efficient crime was to have decried the “merciful death” (Gnadentod) program for children (“Action T-4”) begun in 1939 by Hitler’s attending physician Karl Brandt. Father Andritzki’s church had been nearby the euthanasia center at the Saxonian sanitarium in Pima. An acrobatic gymnast, Andritzki would perform stunts to cheer up fellow inmates slated for almost certain death.  Perhaps in an upside-down moral culture, one must do that to keep balance.  One thing is known, if unmentioned in parliaments and senates, and it is plain: When the cry of a baby is heard from a gallery, it comes from far beyond that, for it is from the Cross. “But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2: 6-8).


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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