Suicide’s Tormented Souls

The story couldn’t have been more tragic. Twin brothers, born deaf, with a genetic disorder that was causing them to go blind at the age of 43.  After a lifetime of communicating by signing, what were they to do?  The twins would have been cut off from each other, it seemed. It was simply too much.  So they asked to be killed.  And having been born in Belgium, that request was granted.  (For full details, see “For Belgium’s Tormented Souls, Euthanasia‑Made‑Easy Beckons,” The Wall Street Journal, June 14, 2013.)  They’re both dead now.

“Even in Belgium, with its decade‑old euthanasia law,” reports The Wall Street Journal, “the request was striking, since the twins were relatively young and not terminally ill.” But according to their doctor, their lives had become increasingly unbearable, and so, “after a long legal and medical journey,” the two brothers “met their doctors and family in a Brussels hospital … enjoyed a final cup of coffee and lay down in adjoining beds, where a chaplain said a prayer. Then they waved to their family, pointed up as if to say ‘see you on the other side,’ received their injections, and were gone.”

As I said, the story couldn’t have been more tragic.

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Precisely what was most tragic about it, however, is what people will disagree about. For some, it will be the chronic disabilities: the blindness and deafness, the inability to live independently. For others, it will be the odd little “see you on the other side” before the suicide, as though they were about to be “beamed up” to some cosmic spaceship.

How a notion of the after-life is possible without belief in a supernatural deity who can help you transcend the natural order of things whereby living things are born, live for a time and die, is hard to fathom.  Otherwise, from whence comes this “afterlife” after nature has run its course?  And yet, if one believes in a supernatural deity with power over life and death, how can you be so sure that this deity won’t be offended if you take his gift of life into your own hands and then cast it aside like an old newspaper?  He gave you the gift of life once, you toss it aside, and you think he’ll entrust you with another, no problem?  You might be right, of course, but I wouldn’t bet my life (this one or any other) on it.

There are a number of issues here.  One is the untrustworthiness of the modern notion of “consent” that underlies the modern euthanasia regimes such as those in Belgium and elsewhere.  According to The Wall Street Journal article, the twins’ attending physician, Dr. De Deyn, the man who performed the killing, “rejects the notion, prevalent especially in the U.S., that patients can get bullied into euthanasia by doctors or family members. He said euthanasia is only performed on those who desperately want it.”

Yes, I’m certain that’s so.  And I have no doubt we’ll all be able to keep our own insurance once Obamacare is instituted.

But there are others who are more skeptical.  “The Catholic Church, among others” says the Journal article, “fiercely objects” to the Belgian law and—pay attention here—to the proposals for its expansion to include minors.  “Minors are considered legally incapable of certain acts, for example buying or selling, marrying, and so on,” Msgr. Andre‑Joseph Leonard, archbishop of Brussels, told reporters. “And here all of a sudden, they’re sufficiently mature in the eyes of the law to ask someone to take their lives?”

Well, I suppose if a minor is mature enough to make the decision to end an unborn baby’s life in the womb, then it would be hard to insist she’s not mature enough to decide to end her own life.

A representative of the Patients Rights Council tried to warn of the implications of such laws: “This presents a really good lesson for those in U.S. considering this [assisted suicide].  If it is a good medical treatment to end suffering, why deny it to a 3‑year old, a 5‑year‑old, an 8‑year‑old?”

The problem with all such reductio ad absurdum arguments, however, is that the opposition can call your bluff simply by embracing the absurd.  In this case, Dr. Dominique Biarent, who heads the intensive care unit at a Brussels children’s hospital, admits that such children are euthanized.  It happens, he says: “if rarely, even when a child is involved, though only with the parents’ consent and usually at their initiative”—a comment that cannot help but make one wonder:  (A) What does this guy mean by “rarely? (B) What does he mean, by “it usually happens at their initiative”? Not to mention: (C) Whose “initiative” are we talking about here?  A 3-year old or 5-year old child’s?  I’m going to have to imagine that “the initiative” that is “usually” involved here, even if “rarely,” is something expressed by the child’s loving parents, not by the unfortunate child whose life hangs in the balance.  Whose “consent” is needed, one wonders, for the euthanizing of a 5-year old?  A 5-year old child can’t legally consent to any sort of binding contract, and yet a 5-year old child can legally consent to be euthanized?  How is this “consent” expressed?  How is its seriousness verified?

Imagine in a different context someone in the American military saying to a reporter: “we rarely bomb Iraqi cities, and then only with the Iraqi government’s consent and usually at their initiative.”  Or if the President were to say to the country: “the NSA rarely taps domestic phone calls, and then only with the Justice Department’s consent, and usually at their initiative.”  Usually?  Not always?  So sometimes the initiative comes from elsewhere?  Who else can take the initiative exactly?  Can you imagine the scorn that would be heaped on a reporter who repeated that claim at face value without any attempt at some very serious follow-up?

I think we all know what’s happening here: someone—maybe it is the parents (“usually”), maybe it is someone else (“if rarely”)—is making a “quality-of-life” decision on behalf of (that is to say, “in place of”) the child and then enforcing that decision on a child largely incapable of knowing what’s being planned for him or her.

And who gets to assure us about whether or not patients are getting “bullied into euthanasia by doctors or family members”?  You guessed it:  the doctors who perform the killing.  (We trust military generals who assure us that no bullying is going on with foreign governments, don’t we?  No real need to check.)  In this case, Dr. De Deyn insists that: “euthanasia is only performed on those who desperately want it.” (Or, as we now know, both on those who desperately want it and at least some others whose parents desperately want it.)  “It’s something they are looking forward to,” Dr. De Deyn assures us. “That sounds paradoxical, but it is the only way to step out in a dignified manner, having control over their life and death, and they see it as a kind of party. They are surrounded by loved ones, they sing songs sometimes. It’s very, very strange.”

Yes, it is—it is very, very strange. Indeed, so strange that it has passed over from “strange” into the realm of the rationally incoherent.

Why?  First, because Dr. De Deyn’s statement presumes someone in the world actually has “control over life and death.”  Who has that?  Do six-month old babies have control over life and death?  If they did, they wouldn’t need their mothers.  Do teens have “control over their lives”?  They insist they don’t.  Do handicapped people?  Does anyone?  All “control” is merely relative.  How much “control” is enough to justify continued life?  And how much lack of “control” is sufficient to justify ending it?  If the stock market drops, should we accept brokers killing themselves because they no longer have “control over their lives”?  When did they ever?  Disasters merely teach us what we should have known all along: “control” in life is mostly an illusion. The ancient Stoics grasped this much.  Among many of our contemporaries, it’s not always so clear, so they find themselves utterly surprised and at a loss when they lose the little illusory control they imagine they had.

The second question prompted by Dr. De Deyn’s assertion that euthanasia is something these people are “looking forward to” is this:  What exactly are these people seeking euthanasia looking forward to?  Oblivion?  The end of self?  Nothingness?  You can’t look forward to oblivion, because once you don’t exist, there’s nothing.  You can only look forward to something if you’ll exist at that moment.

A further problem is that you can’t really contemplate your own non-existence. You can’t think about what it would be like to not-exist, because if you don’t exist, there is no thinking at all. To imagine the world without you is in fact really to imagine yourself still existing, but not quite “you” as you are now.  Most people probably think of themselves floating around like a ghost watching everything, but not really being part of it.

This sort of desire to exist but no longer exist as oneself is a disease the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once described as “the sickness unto death.”  The illusion is that by killing yourself, you can put an end to being you. The wish isn’t really “I don’t want to be” (which is, in fact, a mostly nonsensical wish that cannot even be imagined), but rather: “I want to be, but not to be me-as-I-am. Some people consider suicide the final and ultimate act of self-control and self-realization; Kierkegaard shows us more clearly why it is, rather, the ultimate act of self-negation, the final betrayal of self.

One’s life, like one’s self, cannot be put off and on like taking off an old coat and putting on another one.  One imagines the twins had something like this in mind when they pointed up as if to say “see you on the other side.” On the other side of what?  People watch too much bad science fiction.  Death isn’t being transported through some dimensional portal.  You don’t just “get another life” like the characters in video games.

Christians should strenuously reject all such ersatz counterfeits of their notion of the afterlife, especially those that end up diminishing the value of life and the existential importance of one’s decisions here and now.  It’s not unimportant, for example, that Christians believe in the resurrection of the body:  it suggests an important existential continuity between one’s choices and one’s identity now and what one becomes later.  To sever this connection is to open oneself up to a host of potentially ruinous misunderstandings, each suggesting a relative unimportance to this life which is not borne out by the Christian message.

Christians don’t believe that by throwing your life away, you simply get another brand new one.  For Christians, the choices you make now have eternal implications. The things you do now, the relationships you make, the loves and joys and sufferings you share: these aren’t merely cast aside in death like so much worthless baggage on the way up above.  The “you” you make yourself into here and now is preserved and glorified in eternity—if there is any “you” left after the chipping away and diminishment that you cause by your sins.

Moreover the Christian message of a resurrection from the dead rescues us from a very serious and very bleak emptiness that we should not take lightly:  that’s why it’s such “Good News.”  Not to take death seriously as a very substantial evil—one that can only be overcome by an overweening goodness of an entirely unexpected type—is not only to live in a foolish, life-denying illusion, it is also to falsify everything the Scriptures tells us about the evil of death.  It is to indulge in what might be called a type of “cheap grace.”  Death in the Scriptures is not a good thing; it’s the enemy that came about because of our sin and from which we can only be rescued by the most powerful force in the universe: indeed, only by the very Creator Himself.

And yet I suppose it’s inevitable that, as the culture moves further away from any belief in a Creator (even while, oddly and incoherently, continuing to hold onto belief in things like angels and the afterlife), we’ll continue to see more people choosing suicide. When people no longer believe in a god to whom they owe their life, they will often enough decide that it is “theirs” to do with as they please—including end it.

The Epicureans in the ancient world were of this sort.  They judged that belief in the gods and the afterlife (at least they were consistent in seeing the relationship between the two) was foolish.  Their creed was “maximize pleasure and minimize pain,” so when the pain or discomfort of life got too great, one simply ended it.  Their opponents in the philosophical world, the Stoics, criticized them for this because, like Socrates, they thought a person owed a debt of gratitude to the city that had given him birth, raised and educated him; thus to end one’s life in this way without any consideration of the debt of service one owed to others was both sad and selfish.

Our contemporary Epicureans differ from their ancient counterparts in one important way, however:  when an ancient Epicurean decided to commit suicide, he did it himself.  He didn’t demand that the society upon which he was turning his back do it for him. Our contemporary Epicurean, by contrast, demands that the society drop all of its own convictions about safeguarding life, that it go as far as risk perverting its deepest traditions of medical practice, in order to do for him what he hasn’t the inner wherewithal to do himself.

Such persons show by their intention to end their lives presumptively that they consider the ties that bind them to the community mean little or nothing, they continue to insist that the community’s duty to them is so overwhelming that it trumps all the community’s longest standing traditions and moral convictions.  Their lives of such persons are, at least by their own lights, “their own.”  But if their lives are “their own” and belong to no one else, I see no reason why we as a society should consider ourselves obligated to pervert our medical community to facilitate their desires.

Indeed, quite the contrary, there are many good reasons to resist. If the Holocaust taught us nothing else, it should have taught us the dangers of opening the door to a euthanasia culture.  For those interested, I suggest a reading of Robert Jay Lifton’s horrific The Nazi Doctors.  Euthanasia was merely the first step in the process whereby the medical community as a whole was corrupted:  a first tentative step, usually done “rarely” and “usually” at the initiative of the parents of mentally retarded children, and always, of course, with their signed consent form.  It was, of course, all very legal.  The pathetic sop of “consent” did not prevent its coming.

I have no desire for anyone to kill themselves. I hope for a society that cares for all its citizens in such a way that such self-immolation presents itself only as the sort illusion it truly is. And though in the years to come, we may have to suffer more people choosing to commit suicide, especially as we move into a more post-Christian age, still we have nothing to apologize for as a society when we insist that those who are contemplating killing themselves leave the medical community alone; it has no business getting itself into the habits-of-mind and practice of killing.  We’ve been down that road before, and where it leads is not anywhere a sane culture would wish to go. Survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants rightly insist: “Never again.”


♦  ♦  ♦

“They enjoyed a final cup of coffee and lay down in adjoining beds, where a chaplain said a prayer. Then they waved to their family, pointed up as if to say ‘see you on the other side’, received their injections, and were gone.”    — Wall Street Journal (June 16, 2013)


Two Blind Mice

Into the cloud-walk,
there we will go,
arms linked,
past the Elysian Fields,
sun on our faces,
eyes bright and vivid,
our nimble hands signing.

Two seats
at the local coffee shop
sit empty,
the baguette girl
searches the crowd
for our faces,
the man at the news stand
sells two fewer papers.

Our parents,
wobbly in their walking,
with blue veined hands
and crows feet eyes,
sort our things
and hold a rummage sale.

We did not wait for them
to in their time
take sail
to the wide mountain
of the second kingdom.

Some well-groomed cat
with slicked back hair
sold us the trap,
gleaming wood,
sanded and stained
with a soundless hinge.

Said it was a door.

— Tamara Nicholl-Smith
June 16, 2013

Editor’s note: Pictured above are twin brothers Marc and Eddy Verbessem. (Photo credit: Gazel Van Antwerpen)


  • Randall B. Smith

    Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-12 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

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