A middle-aged man wheels his disabled daughter through a public park. They have enjoyed their visit there. The young woman likes to look at the flowers. For a moment, their shared pleasure of the beauty all around unites them. This is especially precious given her limited ability to communicate. In recent years, however, the visits have grown less pleasant.
Often strangers approach them. They stare coldly at the child-like woman in the wheelchair. Then they turn to the father and ask him why he has had not had this ‘one’ killed.
This is not 1930s Nazi Germany, but twenty-first century, once Catholic Belgium. In 2002, euthanasia was made legal in Belgium. A new film by Canadian filmmaker Kevin Dunn, Vulnerable: The Euthanasia Deception, looks at some of the consequences of this law change. The film is also a warning, especially to Canada and anywhere else toying with the idea of legalizing euthanasia and, as we shall see, the Pandora’s Box that is thereafter opened.
The word that is used by the strangers to the father in the Belgian park is, of course, not ‘killing’ but euthanasia; it amounts to the same thing. The film’s definition of euthanasia is: the deliberate killing of someone with or without that person’s consent, in order to eliminate suffering.
In exploring what this has meant for one country and may mean for another, the film moves between Canada and Belgium. In the latter, in regard to the disabled and the elderly, and indeed the medical profession, Dunn examines the dire ramifications of this new law allowing euthanasia. It is not simply that euthanasia is now permitted by statute; it is that attitudes and perceptions have undergone a radical transformation following in the wake of the change in law. In The Euthanasia Deception, the people who are supposed to “benefit” by this law, those whom it can permit to be killed, are given voice; in some cases, their relatives speak for them. Lionel Roosemont, the father in the park, for example, speaks of what life is like with his disabled daughter. To those strangers in the park who accosted him she is a “thing” to be exterminated. To Roosemont and his family, she is a member of that family—nothing more, nothing less. Consequently, she is not a burden; instead, she is a joy. She has added a wholly unexpected dimension to their family life. With his voice breaking, he thanks God for her, before concluding, as if having to legitimize her existence, that he loves her…
It seems incredible that in our day, in a once Catholic country, a father has to justify the life of his disabled daughter. It demonstrates the alarming dynamic of the legal change. Revealing that the law, and the spirit behind it, are not passive. Rather, they appear to generate increasingly sinister mind-sets. And these have permeated quarters of the public discourse in unexpected ways, stealthily taking hold of the nation’s consciousness, soon becoming an accepted social attitude.
A case in point is that of Professor Tom Mortier. One day, Mortier’s wife called him at work to tell him that a telephone call from a hospital had brought the news that his mother was dead. Mortier didn’t even know his mother had been ill. It turned out that, just days earlier, she had been admitted to a hospital suffering from depression. The doctors offered her euthanasia. She died soon after, while holding in her hands a picture of Mortier, his wife and their children.
To say Mortier was shocked is an understatement. He was also angry. He demanded to know how an otherwise healthy woman in her 60s—albeit one who had suffered from mild depression all her life—could be killed in this way. The bureaucratic response he got was as indifferent as it was inhuman: it is the law; therefore, it is permissible; and that was that.
Belgian medical professionals opposed to the new law talk of the pernicious attitudes that it has spawned, which they witness daily: it is considered appropriate to offer euthanasia, not just to the disabled and the elderly but, also, increasingly, to anyone who is “in pain.” The definition of this term seems to be as loose as the categories defining those who, today, are permitted by law to avail themselves of this “legal killing.” Belgian children, for example, can now opt for euthanasia. One of the film’s contributors remarked that it is as if a “thick darkness” has descended upon his country. Viewing this film, that would indeed appear to be the case. The only thing is that this same “darkness” is now attempting to descend upon other lands, and nowhere more so, it seems, than Canada.
In this documentary, the Canadian contributions come from those who are worried that what has happened in Belgium may soon come to pass in their country. We hear the testimonies of Canadians with disabilities whose quality of life is still good. They enjoy their life; they are loved by family and friends; they contribute to the world around them in all sorts of ways, many of them hidden. They fear that the introduction of euthanasia places a question mark over all this, and, indeed, over them. Their right to exist thereafter apparently shall be open to debate—and more worryingly still, seemingly, others will hold that debate for them.
The contribution of Mark Davis Pickup comes from another angle. He was a healthy and active middle-aged man who lost the power of his legs and is now in a wheel chair. He suffered a period of depression that he admits was so dark that if euthanasia had been legal in Canada then, he would have chosen it. He is glad it was not, and that he didn’t chose to die because, since then, his life has changed for the better. He has stopped judging people, himself included, on what they can “do”; instead he has begun to accept them for who they “are”; that, in turn, has helped him come to terms with his own life. He has discovered a new sense of self-worth. Today, he reflects on how his whole outlook has been reshaped. He is a living example of the truth that everyone has sufferings in life but that many come through these trials stronger and with a renewed sense of purpose. In a moment of weakness, euthanasia would have denied Davis Pickup not only this transformative experience, but also what this has meant latterly to his family and, in particular, to his grandchildren.
One of the chief lies about euthanasia is that it is a personal choice affecting only the person concerned. It affects all concerned—just ask Tom Mortier and his children. Another lie is that euthanasia is some form of compassion. As we can see in the film any misguided sense of compassion soon gives way to a more deadly sense of expediency—just listen to the former nurse who speaks of leaving her profession because, on wards for the elderly, the patients’ deaths were being hastened rather than awaited. The promoters of euthanasia talk of legal safeguards—tell that to Lionel Roosemont as he sees a society increasingly dismissive of his daughter, hearing her described by many merely as a “burden.” The truth is, as the film demonstrates, that these lies mask a medical practice unworthy of anyone who has taken the Hippocratic Oath.
The more one watches The Euthanasia Deception, the more one wonders whose “suffering” is being eliminated. If the people for whose death the law is meant to provide do not want to die, and of those who do choose euthanasia do so often only in a moment of desperation when no other alternatives are being offered, then whose purpose is this law serving? More worrying still, why in Belgium has its legalization moved euthanasia from being a “personal choice” to a strident public dogma?
There are two versions of this excellent film. One is aimed at secular audiences, while another is an extended cut for faith-based ones. The latter version is explicit in reminding us that suffering is part and parcel of human existence. It also reminds us that suffering has value. At times, this is hard to understand, but less so, perhaps, when we remember that from earliest times the symbol of Christianity is one of redemptive suffering, namely, the Holy Cross.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that there are some who wish to eradicate anyone who suffers. As one of the Belgian contributors points out, it is as if those in favor of the law want to create a “perfect world,” a world in which disability, no matter how profound or slight, and suffering no matter how enduring or transient, are banished. A world where only the beautiful and the strong, the rational and the intelligent, the useful and those deemed worthy enough will be permitted to exist.
Some may say it is Huxley’s Brave New World come to life. It is darker than even that with a society based upon selective death for some and a culture of death for all.