Late Edition: Nation of Death

When the history of the Dutch in the 21st century is written, assuming they’re around long enough to have one, it will be recorded that in April 2001, they became the first free people on earth to legalize euthanasia. This dubious honor may not be only theirs for long. A similar euthanasia bill is pending in the Belgian parliament, and a sympathetic chorus has sounded across the Continent.

In overtly embracing the culture of death, the Netherlands was in a sense only formally ratifying its informal practice of the past 20 years. Although Dutch law previously forbade assisted suicide and euthanasia, reluctant prosecutors and permissive judges effectively gutted the prohibitions. Offending doctors were typically let off with a slap on the wrist.

The new law makes a great fuss over strict procedures that must now be followed by medical personnel, but the paper trail will be largely con-trolled by those under suspicion. Moreover, the defining criteria are riddled with loopholes: How does one disprove a doctor’s certification, for example, that the patient’s suffering was “persistent, unbearable, and hopeless”? Practiced as they were in evading restrictions in the old law, doctors will not find it difficult to ignore the new regulations. And the courts will likely, as in the past, avert their gaze.

A sizable percentage of those who die every year in the Netherlands already die at the hands of their physicians, many without consent. That number is bound to rise significantly under the new dispensation. The Dutch experience confirms, as if we did not already know it, that killing gets easier with practice. Once the public becomes inured to eliminating the “unwanted,” it loses its capacity to be horrified by evil. This has been demonstrably the case with abortion, and it will be so with assisted suicide and euthanasia.

Rationalizations aplenty have come forth on schedule for the new Dutch law. A euthanasia proponent at The Hague says it will eliminate “hypocrisy.” That it certainly does. No longer will the Dutch have to worry about possible prosecution while performing their ugly deeds. Now, with the blessing of the law, they will exonerate themselves beforehand. No doubt the absence of hypocrisy will allow the young and the strong to sleep better at night. Those who are old, decrepit, or otherwise dependent on their families and their doctors will learn the wisdom of sleeping with one eye open.

Others defend the law on the ground of compassion. But what kind of compassion permits doctors to kill their patients? Compassionate medicine used to be defined by the Hippocratic Oath, which constrained doctors from abusing their power over vulnerable patients—hence the prohibitions against abortion and euthanasia. In this time-honored tradition, the good of the patient did not depend on his social utility or the convenience or philosophical whim of his doctor.

The Hippocratic Oath these days is thought to be so much detritus from an unenlightened prior age. Advocates of euthanasia now speak of killing not only in terms of compassion but, increasingly and alarmingly, in terms of the victim’s social worth. In short, those who suffer will be better off dead, not only because it alleviates their pain but because society will benefit.

This is the mailed fist beneath the velvet glove. Caring for those who are medically dependent or elderly can be expensive, and as the population of the West ages, the list of those deemed to be burdensome or worthless will grow apace. The propaganda favoring euthanasia leaves no doubt that societal cost-cutting is one of its chief goals, and the evidence of which kinds of people were euthanized under the old Dutch law confirms the convenient elasticity of legal definitions.

Modernity was supposed to liberate mankind from the yoke of religious superstition. But the Enlightenment project came to an end under the heel of the jackboot, as the sad history of the 20th century bears bloody witness.

In this millennium, the dirty work of tyrants will be done by men in white coats, backed by government-certified cost-benefit analyses. Wielding syringes instead of bayonets, they will talk of compassion and individual autonomy, but the effect will be indistinguishable from that of an occupying army. The Dutch, who so valiantly resisted the Nazis during World War II, seem to have forgotten the point of their valor. Let us pray that the rest of us do not.

Michael M. Uhlmann


Michael Martin Uhlmann (1939-2019) served as professor of government in the department of politics and policy at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont McKenna College. Prior to teaching at Claremont, Dr. Uhlmann was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Vice President for Public Policy Research at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and taught at the George Mason University Law School.

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