Writing in Le Figaro, the novelist Michel Houellebecq put it in a nutshell: “A civilisation that legalises euthanasia loses every right to respect.”
In addition to being correct, this statement is topical. L’Assemblée Nationale, the French parliament, is this week debating this very issue. I don’t know if that body listens to public opinion, but if it does, the motion is likely to pass.
For 96 per cent of France’s population are in favour of legalisation, preferring assisted suicide to physical suffering. The supporters of euthanasia cite ‘compassion’ and ‘dignity’ as arguments in favour, and Houellebecq is merciless to them.
Whenever compassion is invoked, he writes, “the lies are palpable”. And with dignity, “they become even more insidious”.
Dignity is increasingly understood as a capacity to act, with any loss of the latter spelling diminution in the former. This, writes Houellebecq, veers far away from Kant’s definition of dignity as a moral, rather than physical, concept. In fact, morality doesn’t seem to enter into the argument at all.
Fair enough, the Catholics, as well as the Jews and the Muslims, oppose euthanasia, but Mr Houellebecq correctly thinks they’ll lose this argument, as they’ve lost all others. In any case, the media close ranks and refuse to report any religious objections.
With this article, and many others he has written on this subject, Houellebecq has entered into my good books, a distinction his novels failed to earn. In fact, until a few years ago I hadn’t even heard his name, which, according to my French friends, punched a gaping hole in my erudition.
At first, I thought they were talking about the writer’s near homophone, the English centre forward Danny Welbeck. Since none of them was known as an ardent football fan, I was quite taken aback. Having at last realised the depth of my ignorance, I then tried to redeem myself by reading a few of Houellebecq’s novels.
I found out that, on balance, I still preferred Danny Welbeck. The novels struck me as floridly overwritten, rather gynaecological pornography with some astute social observations drowned in pseudo-philosophical musings. Then again, Houellebecq can’t help being French.
However, even in his novels one can only detect lapses of taste, never those of intellect. He is undoubtedly an intelligent man, which he showed yet again in this article, unencumbered as it is by the slightly forced artistry of his novels.
Mr Houellebecq is distinctly unimpressed with the examples of euthanasia provided by the countries where it is already legal, namely Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. He doesn’t specify what it is in particular that fails to impress him, but such things must be numerous.
Doctors in the Benelux countries have been vested with divine power over life and death. In Holland, some 6,000 people were euthanised last year, and Dutch health officials proudly announced that 92 per cent of them were terminally ill.
However, if my arithmetic serves me right, that means that some 500 people were killed simply because they didn’t feel like living any longer. And even that requirement wasn’t always observed.
One woman, for example, first stated her desire to die, but then changed her mind. She was killed anyway – no self-reprieves are allowed. The doctor involved actually went on trial, but the tendency is unmistakable. In any case, the doctor was only charged with not following proper bureaucratic procedure, not murder.
Houellebecq realises that in due course any restrictions on euthanasia will disappear one by one. It’s clear to him, as it should be to any sensible person, that, once euthanasia has become legal, sooner or later it’ll become compulsory, with the state deciding who deserves to live and who must die.
This is what happens when man no longer recognises absolute morality given by an authority infinitely higher than any human institution. Kant’s categorical imperative is a poor substitute, and the humanist morality of anthropocentrism is no substitute at all.
It’s a harrowing thought that the birthplace of Catholic scholasticism, a country whose landscape is punctuated by thousands of glorious Romanesque and Gothic churches, is being sucked into the moral mire of modernity so rapidly and irretrievably.
One just hopes that those French parliamentarians for once ignore vox populi and listen instead to vox dei. Nothing in recent history suggests they will.