No-one dies in the Netherlands. At least there’s very little public evidence of death here. Not far from where we live is the local crematorium. I pass it twice a day on the bus. In the past six months I’ve rarely seen anyone near or around it, though to be fair it’s more likely to be used while I’m at the office. Nevertheless we’ve seen very little public evidence of funerals. I did see a large white hearse at the mosque beside our offices in the city and a lot of people emerging dressed in white, but that’s about the height of it.
Obviously people here are as mortal as anywhere else though, on average, they live longer than most other nations. Death is, however, often a very public issue. The Netherlands introduced the ‘Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide Act’ in 2002 for those with ‘unbearable suffering with no prospect of improvement’. This includes those suffering from mental illness, not merely from terminal disease. There is also a provision for euthanasia for children from 12 to 18 years. Now, however, the health and justice ministers in the Dutch government are backing the concept of assisted suicide for those who feel ‘life has been completed’. One of the Dutch newspapers reports that ‘In their briefing, the ministers say that ‘elderly’ people with a consistent and well-considered wish to die – whether ill or not – should be able to take a drug to end their lives’.
Figures for 2015 show that there were just over 5,500 cases of euthanasia, of which 56 people had psychiatric illness and 109 had dementia. While there is fairly widespread support, or at least acceptance, of the policy of euthanasia among the population, concerns are being expressed about the increased cases of euthanasia of those with these conditions. The latest proposal to move to legalise assisted suicide based on ‘feeling that life has been completed’ is a new development that will stimulate further public discussion if it becomes legislation before parliament.
On 25th October Dutch newspapers reported that former parliamentarian Frans Jozef van der Heijden (78) and his wife (76) had ended their lives together and explained their decision in a prepared obituary. Apparently both were terminally ill. Even though he was a practising Catholic and his political party, the Christen Democratisch Appèl (CDA – or Christian Democracy Party), is strongly opposed to the extension of euthanasia laws to include the right to die, van der Heijden was a strong supporter of the right to end one’s life at the time of one’s choosing and the right for a couple to end their lives together. It would appear that van der Heijden and his wife intended their deaths to be a very public statement of their support for an extension of the current laws.
That Christians are at the forefront of calls for the legalising of assisted dying, or the right to die, is not new. Back in 2014 Desmond Tutu expressed his support for the concept of assisted dying in an opinion piece in the Guardian newspaper. More recently he returned to the subject, following several spells in hospital. In a piece for the Washington Post he said, ‘In refusing dying people the right to die with dignity, we fail to demonstrate the compassion that lies at the heart of Christian values.’ He commended again the work of Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, in pressing for legislation on assisted dying in the UK.
When abortion is rebranded as the right to choose and early pregnancy testing offered to provide the right to abort children with Down’s Syndrome, it is hard in Western rights-based societies to see how people can continue to be refused the right to choose to die. None of these issues is simple. An absolutist position on abortion can be destructive for the lives of some women in certain circumstances, and who is going to want to prosecute a doctor who continues to administer doses of painkiller that may ultimately hasten the death of a patient slowly dying in agony? On the other hand, who has the right to say that to be born with disability of some form or other implies you are a lesser human being?
One thing is for sure, the standard Christian response in public debate that human life is sacred carries little weight. Sacredness doesn’t mean much in secular, rights-based societies and it doesn’t mean much if Christians are seen publicly to be in a flap about preserving their own rights with little concern for the rights of others. A measure of humility is called for when engaging with the issues of life and death.