Euthanasia is back in the headlines. The US Supreme Court has reviewed Oregon’s assisted-suicide law. The UK’s House of Lords is debating a private members bill for euthanasia. And the Dutch government has approved a plan for the involuntary euthanasia of terminally ill infants. Shocking? Perhaps it depends on your point of view. In some places euthanasia is looked upon as a “progressive” cause.
Take Hollywood, for instance. At last year’s Academy Awards, Million Dollar Baby took home four Oscars, and Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside) won an Oscar as the best foreign film. The first of these, directed by Clint Eastwood, tells the story of a woman boxer who becomes a quadriplegic in her last fight. Her trainer, also played by Eastwood, is a daily-Mass-going Catholic, but when he sees that she no longer wants to live, he pulls the plug on her life-support system. The Sea Inside is a Spanish film based on the true story of Ramón Sampedro, a former ship’s mechanic who seeks help in committing suicide after 30 years as a quadriplegic.
The effect of these films is twofold: to portray the helpless, hopeless pathos of paralysis, and to question an inflexible legal system that robs people of the ultimate in personal autonomy. This rhetorical strategy has not changed much since the appearance of the first euthanasia film, a German work called Ich Klage An, or I Accuse. The movie depicts the stunningly beautiful, vibrant young wife of a brilliant medical researcher, who is struck down by multiple sclerosis. The climactic moment comes when her husband helps her drink a draught of poison as her doctor’s fingers ripple over a keyboard in the dimly lit room next door. Hanna says, “I feel so happy; I wish I were dead.” Thomas replies, “Death is coming, Hanna.” Hanna answers, “I love you, Thomas.” “I love you, too, Hanna,” says Thomas. There just weren’t enough tissues in my box of Kleenex to watch this scene, even with my wretched German.
Ich Klage An offers some telling clues about the progressive credentials of euthanasia. The script could have been cribbed from a press release for one of the many voluntary euthanasia societies in Western countries. It wasn’t, though. It was written by Nazis in 1942 as propaganda for euthanasia of the voluntary sort. For the Nazis, there was no bright line between the voluntary and involuntary kind. The road to the Holocaust was paved with the involuntary euthanasia of “useless eaters” in a little-known program called T-4. The gas chambers and ovens were given trial runs in which an estimated 100,000 people died.
But the regime also favored voluntary euthanasia (VE) for incurably ill patients like Hanna. The film even alludes to the possibility of an official commission to oversee such requests and prevent abuse, a system that has become a reality in the Netherlands. However, euthanasia never became legal in Germany because Hitler feared resistance from the Catholic Church. Some of the semi-secret involuntary euthanasia programs had to be suspended after a fiery sermon from the Catholic bishop of Münster, Clemens August Graf von Galen (recently beatified by the pope.
Lest I be accused of falling into the fallacy of reductio ad Hitlerum, or refuting an idea by associating it with Nazism, I admit that Hitler’s support for VE does not ipso facto invalidate contemporary VE. Hitler also supported full employment and vegetarianism, and these are wholesome democratic notions. But the fact that both the Nazis and films like Million Dollar Baby use the rhetoric of maudlin compassion, and the same strategy of coping with resistance to legislative change by bypassing the law, raises some awkward questions.
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