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On June 2, Zoraya ter Beek committed assisted suicide in the Netherlands at the age of twenty-nine. She was neither dying nor physically ill. Her motivation for suicide? “For me, autism is the major hiccup in my life. That bothers me the most.” She was estranged from her family, bullied at school, part of Goth subculture, and had been wearing a “Do Not Resuscitate” tag on her neck since she was twenty-two. A psychiatrist had informed her, “There’s nothing more we can do for you. It’s never going to get any better.”

Assisted suicide in the Netherlands was originally supposed to be available only for the terminally ill. Now, the criterion has broadened to “unbearable suffering with no prospect of improvement,” including suffering that is mental rather than physical, as in Zoraya ter Beek’s case. Other countries that have embraced assisted suicide are also flirting with the bottom of the slippery slope. The Canadian government’s Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) program has seen frequent instances of medical authorities urging assisted suicide on patients whose care is deemed too expensive. In 2022, over 13,000 people were killed by the MAiD program, making it Canada’s sixth leading cause of death.

The reinterpretation of “care” to include the state-sanctioned killing of those who burden the system naturally calls to mind Aktion T4, the Nazis’ program of euthanizing the mentally and physically disabled. Hitler issued the memorandum authorizing involuntary euthanasia in 1939, just after the war commenced. It stated, “persons who are suffering from diseases which may be deemed incurable according to standards of human judgment based on a careful examination of their condition shall be guaranteed a mercy death.” Although the program was secret, its scale ensured the public would learn of it.  At mental hospitals and asylums, all the patients were killed. Regular hospitals throughout Germany were roped into the scheme. Children with Down Syndrome, hydrocephalus, and a wide range of physical and mental disabilities were secretly euthanized after their parents brought them in for routine medical care. In some cases, the Nazis would test children, requiring them to create a full sentence using the words “dog,” “fox,” and “field.” They euthanized those who failed. The program also pioneered the use of gas for mass murder, prior to its use in the death camps, in the form of mobile gas chamber vans. In the end, Aktion T4 murdered between 275,000 to 300,000 people in Germany, Austria, Poland, and what is now the Czech Republic.

The Nazis’ appeal to compassion and mercy in describing their euthanasia program is eerily similar to that of contemporary advocates of assisted suicide. This is displayed in Hitler’s memo and, more strikingly, in the Nazis propaganda film I Accuse, about a woman with multiple sclerosis who begs doctors to euthanize her. This was not a minor production: two major SS war criminals, Karl Brandt and Viktor Brack, developed the movie. Both were sentenced to death following the war. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels himself commissioned the film. When implementing Aktion T4, Hitler, with Brandt’s consultation, decided that carbon monoxide gas would be the most “humane” method for Gnadentod (“mercy death”). Canadian advocates of MAiD likewise cite their own compassion as they challenge the implementation of safeguards for the mentally ill. Canadian Senator Pamela Wallin complained about the three-year delay, which had been recommended by a committee of Canadian parliament members, before re-extending the MAiD program to the mentally ill: “I'm just appalled that we would do this to people who are suffering in ways that many of us can't even understand.” 

In the case of the Nazis, the language of compassion masked a disgust for infirmity, a hatred for anything that failed to live up to the ideal of the Aryan superman. By contrast, the same contemporary progressives who advocate assisted suicide also celebrate weakness, disability, and disease, scorning the very idea of normative wellness. How, then, do they arrive at effectively the same conclusion as the Nazis even though starting from a seemingly opposite premise?

An answer is suggested by progressives’ deference toward obese people during the Covid pandemic. The obese were at significantly greater risk of hospitalization and death from Covid, and yet progressives downplayed the comorbidity’s importance in order to spare people’s feelings. “Fat-shaming” was deemed a greater trespass than contributing through negligence to the deaths of obese people. It is the same pattern for any number of ailments: “stigma,” rather than the disease itself, is the real villain. Once the conception of wellness grounded in human nature has been rejected, “care” can come to mean anything.

Although assisted suicide is only legal in ten states, the average American is staunchly pro-euthanasia, according to recent Gallup polling. Support for euthanasia has risen from thirty-seven percent in 1947 to seventy-two percent as of 2018. The situation in Canada is worse: seventy-percent of people support assisted suicide without requiring a “grievous and irremediable condition”; that support rises to eighty-two percent when those who favor that limitation are included. The growth in support for euthanasia has paced the collapse of church attendance in the United States—seventy-three percent of Americans regularly attended services in 1940 compared to forty-seven percent in 2020—and is a clear consequence of the waning of genuinely Christian influence on both public life and personal conscience. Curiously, support for assisted suicide tends to be somewhat lower among physicians, who seem more aware of the slippery slope created by the incentives attending legalization. The doctors who remain loyal to the Hippocratic oath are nearly all that stand against the tide of low-information voters who endorse the practice.

It is an unfortunate fact that Hitler was directly inspired by early twentieth-century American progressives who supported eugenic abortion and sterilization in the name of compassion. These eugenicists included progressive Christians, as Christine Rosen has shown in Preaching Eugenics, whose “compassion” overrode their recognition of the God-given dignity of every human life. Our own dark history should make us question what today’s advocates of assisted suicide are already inspiring. Whatever the final destination of these euthanasia policies proves to be, the movement’s trajectory, exemplified by the Netherlands and our neighbor to the north, is profoundly troubling.

George Carlin once said that when fascism came to America it would be with a smiley face logo. Look at Justin Trudeau’s beaming, boyish mug, and you realize that Carlin’s aim was just a little too far south.

Sam Buntz writes from Chicago.

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Image by Massimo Catarinella, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped

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