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.

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

By

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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  • Steven Jonathan

    Satan and his minions have made great progress at normalizing the absurd- the culture of death is now called the “good” while the culture of life, Holy Mother Church is now called “bad.”

  • Alecto

    I took a course in Estate Planning and Elder law as a 2L as my state was debating the legalization of assisted suicide. The professor, a respected authority on legal issues of the aged, polled the class on our support or opposition to the proposed law. Out of 50 or 60, only 5 or 6 of us voiced opposition to assisted suicide, which is really euthanasia.

    The legal profession has been at the forefront of every advancement of an anti-life agenda, from easy divorce to abortion to same sex marriage for the past forty years or longer which has led me to side with Shakespeare’s Richard III in my views on this “profession”.

  • virginia

    A powerful poem

  • grzybowskib

    On a personal note, I had two high school classmates end their own lives. One shot himself in the head and the other, a girl, overdosed on drugs. If my classmates and I could see that coming, we would have done everything in our power to stop them. But let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s say that these two were elderly and/or terminally ill. There would be people ADVOCATING for them to end their lives, even those it wouldn’t be their time to go yet. Blatant hypocrisy. 🙁

    • Alecto

      Or look at the exploding suicide rates among older veterans. Same hypocrisy.

  • poetcomic1

    A hospice worker wrote a letter from England I never forgot. She said that the terminal patients she cared for went through maybe 2-3 suicidal periods over the last few months of their life but with a little concern and listening, they would come out of it. She said that so often they found, peace, God, resignation and a great enrichment of their lives before they died, making peace with family members, or finding peace in their pain and loneliness. It is murder to leave a suicide pill within reach of such a person. Would you not talk a tortured suicidal soul off of a ledge? The government has joined with the mob on the street below shouting “Jump! Jump! Jump!”.

    • Deacon Ed Peitler

      you have nailed it

    • Carl Albert

      anyone familiar with the work of hospice knows it to be the work of the Lord.

  • MikeMarini

    I refuse to judge someone especially when I haven’t walked in their shoes; I would rather do what our Lord instructed. Love my neighbor and Love God. People who choose suicide do not do it because they think they are being “beamed up to a spaceship.” They are doing it because they want to stop the pain. Where are WE when this is going on? WHERE is Our Support to these individuals, and are we providing a solution for them???? THAT, to me, is one important question I need to answer; and then I can stop blaming others and start reaching out the hand of mercy, the hand of love.

    • Deacon Ed Peitler

      I would start by asking “To whom does this life I possess belong.” If it belongs to God, I then need to ask what God’s will is in this matter. If I believe it belongs to me, then I can do whatever I very well please with the life I possess. The first option refers to absolutes; the second, to what is relative to each person.

    • James1

      I think you contradict yourself. You start by claiming refusal to judge another, then you lament the lack of assistance for these people you’ve refused to judge as even having a problem?

      Or perhaps I have misunderstood…

      However, ONCE AGAIN, no one seems to be advocating the judgement of another person, but rather the ACTIONS of another person. There is a difference, one which appears to escape many.

      I agree that most would not know the state of mind of the person contemplating suicide, but it is not impossible to find out what might be at the root thereof (as you imply with your plea for support for the suicidal individual). However, allowing anyone and everyone to counsel FOR suicide is not the help for which you lament.

  • Billiamo

    That is quite a poem.

  • Catharine

    No, the Belgian doctor is lying through his teeth when he says that only persons who desperately want euthanasia are put to death by this means. Belgium and Holland, where euthanasian has been legal for some time, reportedly have no such thing as hospices. Patients are routinely done to death by putting something into their drinking water. There were articles all over the media a few years ago, to the effect that elderly patients admitted to hospitals for terminal or even chronic diseases were so terrified of being euthanized, that they routinely refuse to drink anything other than tap water where they physically would watch the person drawing the water from the tap!
    There was a report of a Roman Catholic nun with terminal cancer, who did not want to be euthatnized, because she wanted to offer up her sufferings for the good of souls. Too bad; she was done to death as well.
    In England, their solution is rationed health care: if one is over 53 years of age and develops a chronic medical condition (such as kidney failure, requiring dialysis), the medical system has determined that they won’t get their money back, so they won’t fund it. If one has the financial means to pay for the dialysis, one can still get it; otherwise, it’s tough luck.
    The modern mania for separating Church from State, I believe, has led to the total domination of the modern secular state by none other than Satan himself.

    • Mark Millward

      Catherine, you say that: “In England, their solution is rationed health care: if one is over 53 years of age and develops a chronic medical condition (such as kidney failure, requiring dialysis), the medical system has determined that they won’t get their money back, so they won’t fund it. If one has the financial means to pay for the dialysis, one can still get it; otherwise, it’s tough luck.”

      As a card carrying subject of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I can unequivocally and without fear of serious contradiction say that this is totally untrue of health care in the UK. The willingness to provide the full range of services both to the very old and those whose health choices resulted in the need for expensive transplant surgery for example, never ceases to encourage me.

  • kcarrabamaboseil

    What kind of evil “chaplin” officiated at this monstrosity?

  • BeesandBabies

    I have been disturbed by this story all day. First, I feel that as a society in general, perfection is required. If you are “less than” than you don’t deserve to be here. I’m sure that it was a hard decision for these two men – but I can’t help thinking that they didn’t have faith or hope. I know that I have been through so many challenging situations in my own life – but I always have believed that I had a purpose. Also, I have older parents and have seen first hand how society has started to marginalize them and declare that they are less important because they are “old”. Today, when I talked about this story with an acquaintance she mentioned that it was their choice as adults and it was okay since we do that to animals. Huh?

  • John Fisher

    “Suicide is the ultimate act of self-negation, the final betrayal of self.” The ultimate act of self control is bravery and being courageous. Killing others as an answer to one’s disappointments is also twinned to killing oneself. What is it one hopes to escape? Life or pain and disappointment. Suicide is failing to take journey because I don’t like the bus. It is to miss the point. It takes bravery and a grasp of reality. I didn’t ask to be…it was a consequence of and part of the natural vigour the living have to create other living things. Life is for living not for non living. Let the dead bury the dead. To allow suicide is to turn doctors in executioners and turn all into eventual victims of doctors. Presently doctors heal and seek to comfort… they are not killers. It is better for those that want to die to be trtaeted as if they seek life… rather than those that seek life as if they wish to die.

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  • Bernonensis

    They should have pointed down.

    • Shane

      Hm. Cute. Joking about the damnation of desperate people always makes me chuckle too.

      Oh wait, no it doesn’t.

      • Bernonensis

        It is a matter of their damnation, and I don’t consider it a joke, nor should you.

        • James1225

          That’s just a very narrow worldview that I doubt they held to be true.

          • Bernonensis

            There’s nothing especially broad minded in a view that values the avoidance of the possibility of suffering more than life itself.

            • James1225

              That’s your opinion. They obviously saw it differently. It is good that they were given the option.

              • Bernonensis

                Well, of course it’s my opinion, just as what you write is yours. What else do you expect to find here? The real question is whether my opinion happens to correspond with reality, as it clearly does in this case. There is nothing in the concept of euthanasia itself that, either by accepting or by rejecting it, implies greater openness to reason or willingness to consider relevant facts. That’s not just an opinion, it’s understanding what words mean.
                Attempting to characterize my “worldview” on the basis of two sentences about a specific incident doesn’t show broadmindedness on your part. And if you want a substantive discussion, sophomoric dodges like “that’s your opinion” aren’t going to cut it.

                • James1225

                  “The real question is whether my opinion happens to correspond with reality, as it clearly does in this case.”

                  I was just pointing out that your opinion that “it is a matter of their damnation” is based on a narrow worldview that sees suicide as a damnable act. To me, that does not “correspond with reality”. Of course I was stating the obvious when I said that is just your opinion. We are all stating opinions here. My opinion is that we should be confident that people don’t damn themselves by choosing how and when to die. That’s the only point I was trying to make.

  • guest

    Didn’t their family love them?

  • gaby

    These brothers had many more advantages than Hellen Keller, who overcame both deafness and blindness to live a fulfilled and inspiring life: They could speak, read, write and type. They have modern technology, which surely could have supplied a means for them to communicate. But they didn’t have the balls to even ATTEMPT to overcome a handicap. I have no respect for them.
    Unfortunately, the reason doctors are so willing to turn their backs on the tradition of SAVING lives is that they have ALREADY -and long ago- chucked that tradition out the window, with legalized abortion. Good luck putting THAT genie back in the bottle.

    • James1225

      “But they didn’t have the balls to even ATTEMPT to overcome a handicap. I have no respect for them.”

      It’s not for us to judge what went into their decision. Maybe they felt that they had lived a fulfilling life and saw no need to be a burden to others and to grope around in both darkness and silence. Maybe their worldview did not include the belief that suicide would result in eternal damnation.

  • James1225

    “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.”

    Not everyone shares that view. I am surprised that the twins believed in “the other side”. Didn’t they know that what they were choosing to do was to cease to exist? It doesn’t matter now.

  • Alecto

    I saw this quote from Agatha Christie, which seemed a wonderful affirmation to counter any thoughts supporting suicide:

    “I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly, that just to be alive is a grand thing.”

  • givelifeachance2

    What a shame…they nor their families…nor their doctors…nor their government…did not see the possibilities see http://www.nalagaat.org.il/bread.php or http://www.deafblindinfo.org/ for example. Socialized medicine counts the cost *to society* of every patient with each new diagnosis. Some universal health care.

  • Facile1

    My parish trained me in their outreach program for the mentally depressed — which happens when one loses a loved one, one’s health, one’s job, or one’s quality of life. The first thing I was taught was to recognize the suicidal. I was advised to put myself out of harm’s way as quickly as possible and to report the ‘crime’ to the police who are better trained than I am to contain violence.

    The problem with suicidal people is that they are also homicidal people. One cannot love one’s neighbor better than one loves one’s self; and one cannot love one’s self at all if one cannot believe in GOD’s LOVE for all.

    Euthanasia may be the cheap solution to our bludgeoning healthcare costs. But the question we really should be asking ourselves is whether the cost in savings is worth the cost in lives?

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  • Paul Sho

    Suicide is never an option for
    christians. When a christian reaches the end of his tether and is staring down
    a tunnel with no light at the end, he has to do what Elijah, Tobias and Sarah
    did in such circumstance. This is the ‘christian suicide’ if you want to use
    the phrase (cf book of tobias 3)
    If a christian is tired of life let him tell God to come to his aid, or in the alternative take his life.

  • HAWK1947

    My heart goes out to those who contemplate suicide for whatever reason. My heart also goes out to all those who are dying of incurable diseases, but don’t want to die. Especially, sad when they leave behind husbands, wives and or children. May their souls rest in peace. May they continue teach us through their courageous example.

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