Euthanasia: A convenient death?

Posted by Alexander Hay

This weekend's debate on Holland's mobile euthanasia units reveals a great deal about squeamishness towards matters of life and death.

Door-to-door service - but is this the right answer to the euthanasia debate?It's always an unnerving experience to find yourself in what seems like a Chris Morris comedy sketch. By that, what's meant is that reality has reached a tipping point, where the postmodern, heavy media saturation and all-too-real human absurdity combine to make life feel like a Day Today segment, or - in a worst case scenario - a full-on Blue Jam sketch.

Perhaps fittingly, the latest example of this comes from the Netherlands:

...Teams will be travelling around the country assisting patients whose own doctors refuse to help them to die. The new units consist of a doctor, a nurse and all the medical equipment required to carry out euthanasia...

It sounds like a particularly grim comedy skit. One could almost imagine the 'ice cream van of death' playing its jingle as the depressed and terminally ill line up for an overdose or lethal injection. But no, it's actually real:

...Patients can choose injections administered by the medical team, or they may drink a lethal concoction of life-ending drugs.

The Dutch right-to-die organisation (NVVE), which is funding the new scheme, says both options will be available on the mobile units.

"They will first give the patient an injection, which will put them into a deep sleep, then a second injection follows, which will stop their breathing and heart beat," says the group's Walburg de Jong...

Yes, you can even customise your descent into oblivion as per your tastes and requirements. Now, the point of this article is not to attack euthanasia, or even defend it - that's another argument. The point is that the Dutch experience of legalised assisted suicide should be seen as an example of good intentions gone absurd, much in the same way that American pro-lifers' attempts to keep Terry Schiavo alive finally lurched into the grotesque and the ridiculous.

Far from being a solemn, significant decision, the death-van (for want of a better phrase) risks turning life-or-death decisions into a trifling, petty manner, akin to having the plumbers in or having a pizza delivered. Its very mundanity is what makes it so offensive, trivialising what are, after all, life-ending decisions.

Indeed, it is this unfamiliarity which has alarmed some Dutch doctors:

...What makes this scheme even more controversial is that the Royal Dutch Medical Association has raised concerns that the remote nature of the mobile units will not allow the doctors to develop a strong enough relationship with the patient to be able to decide if they are eligible for euthanasia.

"The patient needs someone to talk to, not just a legal assessment," says Gert van Dijk, a medical ethics expert.

"It's more that just assessing whether criteria for euthanasia has been met. A normal doctor might be able to offer other solutions, better pain relief perhaps, the euthanasia doctor doesn't do that..."

The main problem the vans represent, then, is precisely what their advocates claim are their chief advantage. It is this notion that death can be fast, convenient and tidy, just another decision amongst many. In so doing, it bowdlerises and euphemises death, reflecting a cultural squeamishness on the matter that frames the big existential and ethical issues surrounding euthanasia and reduces them to something that merely needs tidying up.

Of course, the UK has no reason to feel smug. Its debate on euthanasia has barely begun.


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Alexander Hay

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