Which Way, Canadian Man?
If we believe in nothing else, can we still believe in life?
A new study has shown that last year, 286 people across four countries agreed to donate their organs after their governments helped them to die. Of those people, nearly half of them were Canadian. U of Manitoba ethicist Arthur Schafer was proud to hear this. From his perspective, it’s rather wonderful that Canadians who died by assisted suicide had the opportunity to “make something morally significant out of their death.” At the same time, he does furrow his brow and warn solemnly against “conflict of interest.” Nobody should be pressured or rushed into the MAID program merely because doctors “are eager to snatch their organs.”
I do wonder what exactly Schafer thinks is happening. Particularly in a society whose ethicists believe that the only way to extract “moral significance” from your death is by agreeing to have doctors carve up and parcel out your dead body.
Thankfully, there are countervailing voices like Nicole Scheidl, the Executive Director of Canadian Physicians for Life, who boldly draws an analogy to the fate of China’s political prisoners. Schafer can go on living in his University of Manitoba bubble if he likes, but at this point, the curtain has been torn away. The truth is clear for anyone with eyes to see.
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Here are a few more numbers, from Alex Raikin’s superb end-of-year exposé in The New Atlantis: For comparison, California has roughly the same population as Canada (slightly less than 40 million) and legalized MAID in the same year (2016). In 2021, 486 people died using California’s MAID program. That same year, Canadian MAID claimed 10,064 deaths. No, I didn’t add an extra zero by accident.
Raikin’s report unfolds like a slow-burning horror film. It’s at its most chilling when he simply presents the philosophy of the “providers” in their own words. These agents of death have a terrifying degree of power. On paper, patients are only supposed to receive MAID if their condition is judged “grievous and irremediable.” In practice, those judgment calls are placed in the hands of people who are if anything proud that their work is disproportionately “assisting” Canada’s poorest and most vulnerable. One woman defends herself thus: “As all Canadians have rights to an assisted death, people who are lonely or poor also have those rights.” She describes this work as the most “rewarding” work she and her colleagues have ever done. She uses the euphemism “provided for” when she discusses euthanizing a patient. “I provided for him.”
It’s still anticipated that some providers might experience “moral distress.” Of course, there are special seminars designed to help them “minimize and manage” all that. Whatever is needed to keep the Machine going.
Then there are the patients. Raikin highlights several. I think I’m most haunted by Rosina Kamis, who we see and hear in bits of embedded audio/video. Rosina suffered chronic pain from fibromyalgia, chronic leukemia, and multiple other problems that required care from “a rotating cast” of doctors and nurses. Ashamed of her dependence and physical needs, Rosina massaged the truth about her reasons for seeking MAID when interacting with providers, claiming they were mostly physical to mask the deep loneliness and shame that were actually the primary drivers. To her close confidants, she said she thought she could bear the physical pain if she had more friends. It’s a little hard to make out what she’s saying in one video, but it’s something like this:
Sometimes all the pain will go away just by having another human being here…But when a society like Belgium, Netherlands, gets used to all this euthanasia stuff… Society can be a society of killing instead of caring, instead of being here, holding my hand, comforting me, blah-blah-blah…But people just expect free medication to solve everything, and if that doesn’t work, well then, euthanasia it is. So in other countries I know…there weren’t any medications and all that, sometimes people just need another person.
In a recorded phone call with her assessor, Rosina sounds nervous, but the woman’s voice on the other end of the line is very soothing: “I just wanted to reassure you that with MAID it is a very dignified death. Rosini [sic], it is. There’s nothing embarrassing about it. You don’t lose control of your bowels. It’s a very elegant, graceful, dignified death.” This reassures Rosina. At one point in the assessment process, she shyly asks, “How am I doing?”
But social analyst Richard Hanania is not disturbed by Rosina’s case. On the contrary, she strikes him as a case where “the system worked.” So maybe “some third party can concoct a story” that her “real” problem was loneliness. Is that “the best that opponents of MAID can do”? Hanania is unimpressed. In fact, he boldly claims he has yet to find one case of assisted suicide for anyone, anywhere, “where practically everyone would look back and say it clearly should not have happened.” He then waves at a fake news story about a Dutch teenager who wasn’t actually euthanized and died at home. Meanwhile, he conveniently ignores the Belgian teenager who was recently euthanized for PTSD from a terrorist attack. Douglas Murray reports, with characteristic incisiveness: “Executing a criminal would be illegal under the European Convention, the European Court of Justice and a whole slew of related laws and protocols. That’s because in the 21st century, Europe is so sophisticated that it is unacceptable to execute criminals. Executing their victims, by contrast, is not just acceptable but ‘logical’.”
However, even if someone were to draw Hanania’s attention to this particular awkward case, he has preemptively written that “one mistake” still wouldn’t be enough to justify shutting things down when “the programs are working well,” on the whole. After all, it doesn’t matter too terribly much if one train is a little late, provided most of them are running on time.
It’s rather amusing to watch the self-satisfaction with which Hanania announces he is so on to us anti-MAID apologists, dramatically declaring that he knows what we’re really up to, here. Sure, we’ll play on the fact that squishy moderate liberals who might normally be okay with “limited” euthanasia are starting to balk at what looks for all the world like a systematic campaign to kill the poors. But we’re just doing that so we can smuggle in the super crazy radical idea that euthanasia is just always wrong, for everyone. Sneaky, aren’t we? But we can’t fool him, ‘cuz he’s smart like that. Ha!
Well, shoot. He’s got me. But getting serious here, I do in fact have some doubts that mere squishy moderate liberalism is going to sustain a consistently full-throated opposition. Take this Guardian piece by Sonia Sodha, which, to her credit, takes first steps in the right direction. She introduces herself as a good liberal, someone for whom assisted dying makes intuitive sense—in theory. But she sees red flags in the Canadian system that give her cause for concern that there aren’t enough “safeguards” in place. She’s disturbed at how it seems to exploit vulnerable people by first denying them things that would improve their quality of life, then nudging them towards suicide. (One of many pernicious elements in Hanania’s essay is the way he distorts and obscures this fact. With increasing frequency, the suggestion of suicide is coming from the government’s side first, not from poor people trying to milk the system for more welfare money.) Sodha concludes that while all things being equal, she might support a program like MAID, all things are not, in fact, equal. And yet, she hints that might change:
I have no doubt that there are some individuals who would benefit greatly from assisted dying and who ought to be granted the autonomy to choose this path. It is tempting to legislate with those individuals in mind, particularly given that end-of-life care in this country is not what it should be. But the more consideration I’ve given it, the more doubts I harbour that the risk of vulnerable individuals suffering a wrongful death as a product of abusive relationships or family pressure can be effectively eliminated. For now, that makes it difficult for me to support.
In a similar way, someone favoring capital punishment in principle might conclude he wasn’t confident enough that the system had effectively eliminated the risk of wrongful execution in practice. I don’t say this to make a moral equivalence between the two issues (I favor capital punishment in principle and practice), merely to note that this is not the strongest of all possible arguments.
But back to our neighborhood Nazi. Hanania’s argument is two-fold. To begin with, he wants to appeal to those “values” universally agreed upon by reasonable, humane liberals like Sodha: Death is preferable to life if life is suffering. People have a right to end their own suffering. Thus, suffering people have a right to choose their own death. Can’t we all agree, here? Be reasonable, now. Be humane.
But he wants to help the good liberal go even further. Because, you see, this isn’t just about what’s best for an individual suffering person. It’s about helping that individual suffering person to understand what’s best for the other people around him. And sometimes, it’s best for the other people around him if he just kills himself:
I don’t worry about MAID putting us on a slippery slope towards devaluing human life due to our cultural aversion to death, how the Canadian euthanasia program has functioned so far, and the experiences of Western Europe. Even the Canadian program, which as I’ve noted is small and almost exclusively used by the very old and very sick, has caused a moral panic. That being said, I’m sure it’s true that some people are pressured to commit suicide because they’re burdens on their family or the rest of society.
What opponents of euthanasia call undue pressure, however, I would call providing information that is relevant to making an informed and moral decision. If you’re on the fence about killing yourself, the fact that you’re a burden on your family or the wider society should be taken into consideration.
I’m pretty sure I would want to kill myself if I was ever paralyzed, and I grant it’s possible that maybe I would change my mind after a while. But I wouldn’t want to become reconciled to living with such a condition. The idea that I might accept it would for me be even more reason to commit suicide, lest I get used to accepting a defective version of myself. I’m sure Raikin and many others feel differently, and would want to hang around in a vegetative state and burden everyone else in their lives as long as possible. But that’s the beauty of individual choice — you don’t have to live by an alternative value system that you find repulsive.
To quote that great moral philosopher, Mr. Potter, George Bailey is “worth more dead than alive.”
Here I love Michel Houellebecq, who is hardly motivated by a pious Christian moral vision, but has no time for assisted suicide apologists. Hanania quotes him at length only to brush him aside as “sad,” wholly oblivious to the delicious savagery with which his own position is being skewered. Houellebecq attacks this whole brave new definition of “dignity” whereby good health has become a pre-condition thereof. This completely supplants the “human” part of “human dignity,” reducing people to animals, replacing the moral being with the physical. If “dignity” is now to be entirely determined by the condition of the physical being, then Houellebecq himself is in an awkward situation. When he considers himself as a physical being, he has never been all that, and it’s only downhill from here:
Put in this way, I have rarely had the impression that I have manifested extraordinary dignity at any time in my life; and I do not have the impression that this is likely to improve. I am going to end up losing my hair and my teeth. My lungs will be reduced to shreds. I will become steadily more or less impotent, more or less incapable, perhaps incontinent and possibly even blind. Once a certain stage of degradation has been reached, I will inevitably end up telling myself (and I will be lucky if it is not someone else pointing it out to me) that I no longer have any dignity.
Well, so what? If that is dignity, one can very well do without it. On the other hand, everyone more or less needs to feel themselves necessary or loved; and, failing that, esteemed—even in my case admired. It is true that can also be lost; but one cannot do much about that; others play in this respect the determining role. And I can easily imagine myself asking to die in the hope that others reply: “Oh no, no. Please stay with us a little longer.” That would be very much my style. And I admit this without the slightest shame. The conclusion, I am afraid, is inescapable: I am a human-being utterly devoid of all dignity.
Houellebecq has repeated and expanded a bit on this thesis in a new essay at Harpers. He confesses he sometimes feels out of place as the one agnostic among fervent Christians against euthanasia, especially since he’s not also consistently anti-abortion. He doesn’t want to be “misunderstood.” He’s not arguing from Christian principles, per se. Hippocrates preceded Christ, after all. Yet the Hippocratic Oath is obviously right and noble, because it is based on what the natural light obviously reveals about the nature of man. For we can all see just by looking that man, in essence, is not just an animal, not just a physical being. So whatever else you may think about how we came to have that essence, there it is, manifestly. But how this is to be “disentangled” from Christianity now, Houellebecq couldn’t say. He seems resigned to the fact that his lot is now cast with the Christians, like it or not.
One could say that Hanania and Houellebecq represent two competing strands of pre-Christian paganism. Hanania explicitly calls back to the Romans and their notion of “patriotic suicide,” which can still resonate “despite two millennia of Christian influence.” As Ross Douthat notes in his counter-analysis, this call to “RETVRN” is Hanania’s pre-Christian Christian substitute, that necessary extra “animating force” that kicks plain old enervated liberalism up a notch to “Liberalism+.” Suicide is not merely a choice made in one’s own self-interest but a choice made for the Common Good, an appropriate sacrifice “to the gods of the city and the hearth.” Douthat also recalls the eerie “spiritual” quality of the Simons department store ad glorifying a Canadian woman’s choice for MAID. There, too, one sees a reaching for something that can sacralize the suicidal act, something that can ennoble it with a transcendent value.
Houellebecq’s pre-Christian paganism, by contrast, takes the more noble form embodied in Hippocrates’ oath. The original text swore “by Apollo Healer, by Asclepius, by Hygieia, by Panacea, and by all the gods and goddesses.” Fascinatingly, we can find Greek manuscripts of the oath in the 9th century A.D. and following which replace this preamble with a Christian introduction. The oath itself is not a “Christian” oath. Nevertheless, one could say that a Christian preamble naturally complements it. It encodes what C. S. Lewis in his Abolition of Man would call “the Tao”: i.e., “the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”
We could also appeal to another Greek, Aristotle, and his axiom that agere sequitur esse: acting follows being. People believe they will “lose their dignity” by losing their capacity to do various things humans are normally able to do. And yet, they remain the kind of being who has the capacity for those things. It is this which should be the salient point with respect to their dignity and their rights. If we take the materialism Houellebecq instinctively resists and follow it to its logical conclusion, there is no such thing as a human essence, a human nature. All we have, all we are, is a bundle of qualities we could lose at any moment, at which point there is no more we to speak of. In which case, none of us have dignity. None of us ever did.
It seems to me significant that one can make these arguments, these observations, independent of special Christian revelation. At the same time, it also seems significant that Houellebecq finds himself the only agnostic among Christians when he makes them. It is not impossible to be a (moderately) pro-life agnostic, or atheist. As I’ve argued before, the moral code of the universe is, one could say, open access. There is nothing to stop Michel Houellebecq from drawing his conclusions accordingly, at least in this area, if not in all areas touching his personal identity as a French novelist. But psychologically and socially, it seems that pro-life atheism does take a certain rare chutzpah, a tough-mindedness, a “honey badger don’t care” quality. This quality is in short supply. Most people don’t like feeling tribeless, isolated, out of place. And in the absence of a common book, or a common building, where exactly will the tribeless ones gather?
I wish I could say they will all be gathered in, into those buildings which are already standing. Yet too many are now occupied by people who are no more humane than Richard Hanania. Except they are worse, because they claim to be Christians.
Maybe I should end this very long essay on a personal note, for those of you who have made it this far: These things are not abstract, for me. I have friends who have tried to kill themselves, or at least wanted to, with varying degrees of success or near-success. I have friends who live with clinical depression. I have friends and family who live with severe chronic pain and illness. As I wrote this piece, I was checking updates on one of the friends who once tried to kill himself, even before he contracted a virus that has left him paralyzed. To say it grinds my gears when Richard Hanania suggests it’s a shame he didn’t succeed before becoming “a burden on society” is, well. It’s an understatement. And as Douthat points out, it insults the intelligence when Hanania sneers at people who say there are depths still to be plumbed here, only to turn around and suggest a vast range of “lives-not-worth-living.” It’s the rhetorical equivalent of loudly shouting there is no slippery slope, followed by turning the slope into an ice mountain.
But perhaps this is a good thing, in the sense that it’s always potentially good when pro-death apologists overplay their hand. It may be the shock to the system that moderate liberals like Sonia Sodha need. Already, she has taken her first few steps away from Richard Hanania. Perhaps if she keeps walking in the same direction, she’ll wake up one morning to realize she’s not a liberal anymore.
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