By Dr Tim Stanley, Telegraph - October 3, 2013
This week Nathan Verhelst, only 44-years old, elected to be killed by lethal injection because he was left traumatised by a botched sex changer operation . It's a story full of incredible pain: born into an identity he couldn't stand, abandoned by his mother, revolted by the body that doctors created for him and, finally, committing suicide with the help of the state. What's most tragic of all is how it ends. Nathan Verhelst was clearly a lonely man in desperate need of human sympathy and kindness. Yet that kindness came not in the form of love but a lethal injection. Is this the West's idea of humane behaviour?
This isn't a story about transgenderism. The change from becoming one sex to another is complex, risky and fraught with emotion – but a lot of people achieve the transition and are happy with the results. Whether or not Verhelst should have undergone the change is a matter between him as his doctors and worthy of little more comment than, "Good luck." No, this is a story about a man who went through a personal Hell that could have been sparked by any variety of emotional distress and who wound up hating himself, lonely and inclined to give up living altogether. Aside from the personal tragedy involved, what gives the story a particular relevance for all of us is that the Belgian state regarded helping him to die as a legitimate response to his problems. And this is part of a growing trend.
Belgian law states that citizens can be euthanised if a doctor confirms that they are in "constant and unbearable physical or psychological pain" resulting from an "accident or incurable illness". In the past year alone, the number of people electing to be killed jumped 25 per cent and it's now the cause of 1 in 50 deaths in the country. Recent cases have included a 44-year old woman with chronic anorexia nervosa and a 64-year old woman with chronic depression. Of course, there's a lot of data we don't know about. One survey found that 32 per cent of assisted deaths are conducted without request and 47 per cent go unreported. It's not unreasonable, then, to speculate that Belgian society is undergoing a slow cultural shift in the way that it regards death.
If you find that troubling, compare it with what's happening in the Netherlands. There, 1 in 30 deaths are now assisted. A private charity operates mobile euthanasia units, which travel from one care home to another – door-to-door – to help anyone to die who has been denied the opportunity by a doctor. They only visit each home once a week to relieve the potential psychological burden – but it must still be quite a shock when a group of smiling nurses turn up at your door and politely ask if you'd like to die today.
What science fiction writers of the past imagined as a fantastical reflection on the lack of humanity of their contemporary society has become concrete reality in ours. If you want, we can now kill you in an afternoon. Belgium and the Netherlands list "death" among their accepted forms of medical therapy, performed with a chilling bureaucratic efficiency that has the effect of making it all appear perfectly normal and entirely routine. What was once forced upon people by authoritarian regimes is now becoming vogue by means of the ballot box. Societies are shuffling towards a culture of death. Willingly.
Of course, defenders of euthanasia will insist that they are simply expanding individual freedom, that to live or die is the ultimate expression of free choice. Perhaps. But how do we balance that freedom with our responsibility to cherish life and support one another? Take the case of Nathan Verhelst. What is the morally superior response to his pain: to accept his misery as his own state of affairs and charitably give him a lethal injection? Or to reach out to a desperate lost soul, convince him that he is beautiful in the way that all human beings are beautiful, and plead with him to live with the assurance that he won't face his demons alone? Nathan Verhelst didn't "need" an assisted death – he needed love. It is to the shame of all us that we failed to give it, offering him pointless annihilation instead.
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