A recent NPR radio summary of an angry protest in Belgium over a controversial euthanasia incident likely disturbed any number of unwitting US listeners. The broadcast explained that a Belgian doctor had just resigned in anger and disgust from the country’s euthanasia commission after a dementia patient who never specifically asked to die was euthanized at the family’s request. Understandably a number of other Belgian doctors were asking for an inquiry into the circumstances and whether protocols were followed.
What would have confused and upset US listeners was the radio announcer’s assimilation of Belgium’s “physician-assisted suicide” laws with the existence in several states in America of nominally similar, or at least similarly-sounding laws. The implication was that people living in Oregon, Washington, California, Colorado, Vermont, the District of Columbia and any other jurisdiction so foolhardy as to go Belgium’s route could find themselves euthanized against their wishes!!!
And yet nothing could be further from reality. The NPR broadcast did quite a disservice to those in America who have made clear that in no state is euthanasia legal or even seriously contemplated. Unlike the situation in Belgium (and the Netherlands and Canada as examples), in the US only self-administration of an Aid-in-Dying drug is authorized in those few jurisdictions which have legalized Death with Dignity laws. A doctor in California or Oregon who administers a lethal drug to a willing patient is still guilty of murder and could be prosecuted as such.
Belgian (and European) cultural attitudes towards End of Life are vastly different than those in America. Patients in those countries overwhelmingly ask their doctors to administer lethal doses when they are confronting a terminal, incurable and intolerable illness. In America, where self-reliance is a touchstone, we do not want to empower doctors to have that power.
Opponents of MAID use Belgium as the stalking horse for their slippery slope arguments. However, they have used that argument for almost 20 years and no US state has even proposed to allow euthanasia, which is the administration by a third party of a lethal dose to a wiling patient, sometimes called mercy killing. The two regimes, in Europe and America, are vastly different and the truth, which opponents consistently ignore, is never will the twain meet.
It is regrettable that the NPR broadcast of a tragic, but exceptional, event in Belgium, was so inarticulate as to cast confusion on a far safer, far more voluntary and far more foolproof approach in the US.