The case of Frank Van Den Bleekenthe Belgian murderer and rapist who requested to be euthanized rather than spend life in prisonhas provoked its fair share of comment. And rightly so, for the facts of this case are shocking. But far more shocking is the rapidly growing euthanasia culture that made this whole affair possible. The increasing normalization of euthanasia is just one of many social trends that reveals a Europe that is becoming profoundly estranged from its Judeo-Christian heritage. As that happens, European societies are losing the moral and spiritual anchor with which to resist the gradual slide into a complacent nihilism.
When Bleeken’s request to be euthanized was granted, much of the outrage came from those who insisted that he should be forced to serve his full life sentence in prison. There was remarkably less comment on the fact that the authorities were granting a euthanasia request to someone who was not terminally illthe fifty-two year old is not in any physical ill health. But as it happens, Bleeken’s request will not go ahead for the moment as the doctor who was to carry out the procedure has pulled out on the grounds that “certain legal due diligence” had not been followed.
So Bleeken has been saved from his request on a technicality, not because anyone in authority thought there was anything inherently wrong with what he was asking for. After all, this is just the latest high profile euthanasia case to have come out of Belgium in recent years. Many of these cases have been unspeakably sad. There was the individual who chose to be euthanized following a sex change operation, but who spoke mostly of having been unwanted as a child. And then there were the Vebessem twins who had lived all their lives together, both deaf, but who feared they might also go blind. Following these cases, the Belgian parliament determined that euthanasia is such a universal good that it should be made available for children.
In the case of child euthanasia, Belgian law stipulates that “the patient must be conscious of their decision and understand the meaning of euthanasia.” If not so appallingly tragic, such a provision would be laughable. But in neighboring Holland, sickly infants are now being killed on the grounds that it is distressing for parents to watch them suffering, and the Royal Dutch Medical Association estimates that 650 such newborns are terminated each year.
In those countries that have legalized euthanasia (Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg) the numbers seeking the procedure are spiraling ever upward. In 2013 there were 1,087 cases of euthanasia in Belgium, up 27 percent on the figures for 2012, while 2012 saw a 25 percent increase on the numbers for 2011. A third of those undergoing euthanasia in 2013 were under sixty, and some sixty-seven cases involved euthanasia on mental health grounds, which must surely raise some question about the validity of the term “consent.” In Holland, it has been estimated that 12.3 percent of all deaths are now via euthanasia, with the number of mentally ill patients killed by this method having trebled in the space of a year. In all, it is thought there were around six thousand cases in 2014. Recent incidents included one woman with an eating disorder, and another claiming to be suffering from tinnitus left behind two teenage children.
For several European countries, euthanasia remains a legal grey area, with “assisted dying” not having been explicitly criminalized. But many living in countries where it is outlawed are now taking part in the macabre phenomenon known as “suicide tourism.” So in Switzerlandwhere assisted suicide is permittedthe number of cases rose 700 percent within roughly a decade, having been boosted by foreigners making the journey to end their lives.
Notably, as European’s increasingly embrace death as a lifestyle choice, so too are they choosing against birth and procreation. The average birth rate for European Union nations now stands at just 1.55 births per woman, and in several countries it is still lower. This evident disinterest in perpetuating new life is surely fundamentally linked to Europe’s permissive attitude on euthanasia. For in most European countries abortion has long been available on demand and it is hardly surprising that societies that negate the absolute value of life at its outset, then negate it toward its end, and finally come to negate it in its entiretyhence why death by medical procedure is now becoming acceptable for those who are not even remotely unwell.
Underlying this bleak phenomenon is Europe’s mounting rejection of its Judeo-Christian heart. Across the continent towns and cities are confronting the problem of what to do with their growing number of empty churches. As religious belief and church attendance plummet, the message of morality and meaning that once spread forth from these houses of worship wanes. Europeans are losing themselves in a kind of unthinking existentialism in which life has no intrinsic higher value and all human suffering is rendered necessarily senseless.
No longer wanted as places for reflection or moral reckoning, many of the abandoned churches are now being turned into places of recreation and leisure. So while Europe’s imposing cathedrals sit all but unused, its red-light districts and nightclubs are heaving. Since the European man increasingly conceives of himself as essentially orphaned in a universe with no higher power, transitory pleasures become the only consolation, and euthanasia an inevitable and necessary way out. As such, Europeans risk the day when they have all become Van Den Bleeken; believing that since life is nasty and brutishit may as well also be short.
Tom Wilson is the Tikvah Fellow at Commentary Magazine.