Right now in Belgium, if you wanted to die, a team of doctors would be there to help you. You need not have a terminal illness, or be necessarily anywhere close to the end of your life. You could be depressed or suffering from anxiety or any number of psychological ailments and that would be enough to constitute assisted suicide. Your family and friends would hardly be consulted on the matter because it is your free will.
In this week’s New Yorker, journalist Rachel Aviv explores the right to a dignified death in a rigidly secular and humanist Belgium in what is one of the craziest and best New Yorker stories I’ve read in a long time. Lucky for you, cheapass, it’s available without paywall online.
The story focuses on a Belgian woman named Godelieva De Troyer who suffered from clinical depression that spiraled out of control after a breakup late in life. Her relationships with her son and daughter were increasingly fraught, and she decided that the only option was to seek assisted suicide:
Godelieva felt as if her emotional progress had been an illusion. She had seen the same psychiatrist for more than ten years and had consulted him on every decision, even those involving financial investments and home renovations, but she had now lost faith in his judgment. She complained to friends, “I give him ninety euros, he gives me a prescription, and after ten minutes it’s over.” Her psychiatrist acknowledged that there was no cure for her condition; the best he could do, he said, was listen to her and prescribe antidepressants, as he had been doing for years.
Aviv follows the career of Wim Distelmans, “an oncologist and a professor of palliative medicine at the Free University of Brussels” (pictured above). Distelmans was the doctor that Godelieva consulted with when she decided that she’d like to die. She sent a notice to her son and daughter informing them that this was her decision and within three months, she was dead. Her son Tom hadn’t even had a chance to respond or intervene. Now he is attempting to seek justice for his mother’s death, filing a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights.
But Godelieva’s depression is not the only ailment that Belgian doctors see as a reason to want to die:
In the past five years, the number of euthanasia and assisted-suicide deaths in the Netherlands has doubled, and in Belgium it has increased by more than a hundred and fifty per cent. Although most of the Belgian patients had cancer, people have also been euthanized because they had autism, anorexia, borderline personality disorder, chronic-fatigue syndrome, partial paralysis, blindness coupled with deafness, and manic depression. In 2013, Wim Distelmans euthanized a forty-four-year-old transgender man, Nathan Verhelst, because Verhelst was devastated by the failure of his sex-change surgeries; he said that he felt like a monster when he looked in the mirror. “Farewell, everybody,” Verhelst said from his hospital bed, seconds before receiving a lethal injection.
In the story, Aviv interviews a psychiatrist named Dirk De Wachter who approved the assisted suicide of a twenty-five-year-old woman:
He recently approved the euthanasia of a twenty-five-year-old woman with borderline personality disorder who did not “suffer from depression in the psychiatric sense of the word,” he said. “It was more existential; it was impossible for her to have a goal in this life.” He said that her parents “came to my office, got on their knees, and begged me, ‘Please, help our daughter to die.’ ”
Crazy stuff. I won’t give away the ending. As in life, satisfying conclusions are hard to come by.