It was reported last Monday that the Netherlands had voted to legalize euthanasia, forever giving the phrase "to go Dutch" an ominous twist. Although the decision merely formalizes a widespread practice that enjoys majority support among Dutch doctors and citizens, it makes the Netherlands the first country to grant legal sanction to a practice traditionally outlawed but increasingly accepted in the West — at least philosophically. The pro-euthanasia movements in France and Belgium are optimistic that their own countries shortly will follow suit.
The new law may not seem like a blank check for mass-scale doctor-assisted suicide. Conditions apply: "Patients must face a future of unbearable, interminable suffering and must make a voluntary, well-considered request to die. Doctor and patient must be convinced that there is no other solution, another physician must be consulted, and life must be ended in a medically appropriate way."
Yet critics say the guidelines for administering this truly final solution are so vague — consider the subjective nature of words such as "unbearable," "well-considered," even "voluntary" — as to be meaningless.
"Once you accept killing as a solution for a single problem, you will find hundreds of problems for which killing can be seen as a solution," warns Dr. K. F. Gunning, a prominent Dutch opponent of euthanasia.
Indeed, government statistics show that doctors intentionally kill about 10 percent of Dutchmen who die each year. Not a few simply are weary of life. Not a few are pre-emptively killed by physicians who anticipate their patient's "voluntary request." Shortly after the new law's passage, Health Minister Els Borst suggested that "old people who are tired of living" should be allowed to name their death day. Like the new law itself, this would legalize a common practice.
Ought one care about the Netherlands' legal adoption of a practice last sanctioned by the Third Reich, which condemned 100 Dutch doctors to concentration camps for refusing to kill the infirm and mentally retarded? The answer depends upon whether one feels at home in the culture of death that reigns in what used to be called Christendom.
Dr. I. van der Sluis, a secularist opponent of euthanasia, attributes its popular acceptance (polls show only 30 percent of ordinary Dutchmen and 10 percent of doctors oppose it) to the fear of appearing — shock, horror! — too Christian. That would imply rejection of the cardinal commandment of the post-Christian West: "Thou shalt not be judgmental."
"The proponents of euthanasia have falsely, but successfully, cast the argument as one of religion versus rationality," Dr. van der Sluis explains in Wesley Smith's 1997 book, "Forced Exit: The Slippery Slope from Assisted Suicide to Legalized Murder." "They assert that only fundamentalist Christians oppose euthanasia," which few Dutch are anyway. Dr. Pieter Admiraal, a former euthanasia crusader who had a change of heart, verified this point. "The only way to deny euthanasia is based on religion," Dr. Admiraal observed. "Most Dutch are nonbelievers, and thus, they must support euthanasia."
Indeed, it is impossible to logically defend the sanctity of life if one denies the existence of the sacred. After a traditionally Christian people has rejected Christian doctrine, vestigial Christian sentiments may linger — sentiments suggesting suicide (let alone killing someone who will not do so himself, formerly known as murder) is somehow wrong. If disbelief persists long enough, however, such sentiments eventually wither and die like the leaves of a tree whose roots have been severed. If one denies that God is the author of creation and that no one has the right to take innocent life, then the sanctity of life does seem like sentimental bosh.
This is not to say the Dutch and many Westerners in general have no religion — nature abhors a vacuum, after all — only that it has become man-centered. Worship of the divine has been replaced by worship of the autonomous individual, whose ability to "self-actualize" must be boundless.
Self-actualization and laissez-faire morality are natural bedfellows, which is why euthanasia fits so neatly into the Dutch matrix of bourgeois hedonism. Consider its capital, Amsterdam. Since the 1960s counter-cultural revolution swept the land of bountiful tulip beds and empty churches, this beautiful city has become Europe's Gemorrah, with specially zoned red-light districts, clean needle dispensaries, sex shops aside Gothic churches, and "coffee houses" where one can get discreetly stoned. Leave it to a people famous as mercantilists to commodify decadence into banality.
Seen in this context, euthanasia is just another form of self-actualization (self-deactualization, really). Having reduced life to a calculus of pleasure and pain, it follows that once pain predominates, one should be free to rub out the equation.
Freedom, however, has the tendency to become unruly if it lacks a transcendent moral basis to focus it toward the virtuous. As Nietzsche warned, and the Dutch may soon learn, the potentialities of human freedom are limitless without the rewards of heaven or the threats of hell. If this is so (as if the horrors of the 20th century are not ample proof), then the legitimization of voluntary euthanasia may pave the way for involuntary euthanasia as a function of state policy. Given Europe's looming population crisis, this prospect is quite real.
As Patrick Buchanan points out in his latest book, "The Death of the West," all European nations (with the exception of Muslim Albania) literally are dying out. He interprets the statistics through T. S. Eliot's argument that a culture becomes desiccated after it is severered from its founding cult. For Europe that cult was Christianity, which transformed a barbarian continent into a vibrant and forward-looking civilization. But the roots have been cut, and the dead tree gives no shade.
Having lost the higher vision, Europeans have become devoted to living materially well rather than ensuring that the good life, spiritually speaking, is perpetuated for posterity. Recreational sex is a high deity of the new secular cult; procreative sex, however, is treated as a danger to be inoculated against by means of contraception, which is taught from childhood on. The result is that, by mid-century, more than 10 percent of Western Europe's population will be over 80, the median age being 50.
Mr. Buchanan asks: "Will Europe's workers, whose taxes must rise and whose retirements must be put off to subsidize the pensions and health care costs of this burgeoning aged population, insist that the sick and senile elderly in their eighties and nineties be kept alive?"
Given the callous regard for life that reigns in what the pope has termed the West's "culture of death," all of Europe may one day go Dutch.
Matthew A. Rarey is an intern on the editorial page of The Washington Times. E-mail:email@example.com.