Sunday, December 26, 2004

One Halloween, when I was probably about 8, my older sister and I were festooned in “Dutch” garb by my Mom. We wore cute little wooden Dutch shoes and what we took to be “Dutch” clothes, much as we imagine Hans Brinker and sister would wear. “Aren’t they cute,” were comments I recall.

Not nowadays. Dressing up in “Dutch” regalia would entail dressing like the Grim Reaper. The Netherlands, once the Land of Tulips and Windmills, is now known worldwide not for flowers and irrigation ingenuity, but for death and abortion. Were he attempting to escape allied justice today, Dr. Joseph Mengele, the Nazi “Angel of Death,” would not have make his way to the jungles of Brazil; the Netherlands would probably welcome him with open arms. It’s the new “Dutch Treat.”

Several years ago, the Netherlands placed itself with pride at the cutting edge of modern decadence by enacting the world’s most liberal assisted-suicide laws. The country’ powerful medical community now has taken a quantum leap toward a society that values death over life, in proposed new legal guidelines that would turn that country’s assisted-suicide law into a mandate for medical homicide.

Currently, Dutch law permits doctors to administer a lethal dose of muscle relaxants and sedatives to terminally ill patients, at their request. The Groningen Protocol, as it is known, would permit doctors to euthanize patients who, according to the opinion of these “doctors” and other medical “experts,” lack “free will.” This category of unfortunate individuals would include newborn babies, persons in irreversible comas and persons with severe mental retardation.

Worse, the Groningen hospital, after which the protocol is named, has already begun to administer the procedure, even without formal legal sanction. To date, Dutch prosecutors have refused to step in. Hey, if we can get rid of society’s “deadwood,” why let niceties of law or morality get in the way?

Regardless of how one feels about euthanasia of the willing, I would hope most people agree ending someone’s life without consent puts us at the top of a deeply disturbing, indeed frightening, slippery slope.

When the person to be euthanized gives his or her consent, the line of contention rests between the innate value of human life (and the chance that consent will not be informed) and what control an individual should have over his or her ultimate fate. That, in my estimation, is a legitimately contested debate.

Groningen’s guidelines, however, involve the actual medical homicide of individuals who can’t protest or defend themselves. I have no doubt that if the Groningen Protocol becomes official, parents who don’t want to contend with raising a disabled child will have their baby or young child euthanized, even if the baby has a fighting chance at a meaningful life. Likewise, family members who fear the burden of coping with a disabled or comatose loved one will seek his or her involuntary euthanasia out of their own self-interest.

Medical ethics has to be one of the most maddeningly complex fields of endeavor on the planet. The mental agility needed to contend with some of these issues is considerable. There is, however, one basic starting point for any ethical inquiry in medicine; one which, though not actually in the Hippocratic Oath, encapsulates its message. It is: “above all, do no harm.” In other words, life of any quality is sacred in itself, and throughout the morass of ethical issues that arise in the practice of medicine and healing, the alpha and omega of everything should be the preserving of life.

The idea of involuntary euthanasia stands foursquare against that presumption in favor of human life. In fact, the Groningen philosophy is one in which the patient’s life becomes disposable when the quality of that life drops below a certain threshold, and when its maintenance becomes inconvenient to the patient’s kin or the state. The premium placed in traditional medical ethics on preserving life as an end in itself has been lost entirely in the thicket of a misguided communalism.

In America, this almost cavalier attitude toward life as a thing of independent value poses unique problems, as the right to life here stands on the same shelf as the right to liberty. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.” This basic conviction — that our right to speak and think freely, for instance, comes from the same font as the right to live, and that both are equally inviolate — does not end at the hospital doors. Moreover, it ought to apply as much to patients whose mental faculties are insufficient to formulate consent as it is to the rest of us. We — at least the majority of Americans — do not value life on a sliding scale. All are equal.

Indeed, the idea of involuntary euthanasia evokes the very same disregard for the rights of the individual that pervaded the worst historical excesses of the American legal system against the physically and mentally disabled. For example, in 1927, the Supreme Court found constitutional the forced sterilization of a woman whose mother and daughter were both retarded. Under law, the Supreme Court reasoned, society had a valid interest in making this woman barren because she would pollute it with defective children (though the opinion puts it more artfully). One has to admit that, even the most liberal of today’s Supreme Court justices are better than the crowd that rendered that opinion.

Similarly, one could compare the deprivation of liberty in the case of involuntary euthanasia to that in the involuntary commitment of the mentally ill. Until only a couple of decades ago, the commitment rules in America were quite lax. People with varying degrees of mental illness could be committed indefinitely in state institutions, where they could be subjected to all flavors of mistreatment (think, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”), up to and including forced medical experimentation. During the 1950s, close to 600,000 people lived in state mental institutions; today that has been reduced to only about 100,000. Again, the same sort of disregard for individual liberty that justified those commitment rules undergirds the premises behind involuntary euthanasia.

Anyone considering having a child while in the Netherlands, or traveling there with someone whom the Dutch authorities might consider disabled, should think again.

Bob Barr, a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia, is a columnist for United Press International. This article special to The Washington Times.

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