In the English language, the word “Spartan” has come to mean austere. The culture of ancient Sparta was so harsh that mothers would send their sons off to war with the warning, “Return with your shield or on it.” Spartan austerity began at birth. New-born infants were examined and if they were not fit, they were left to die.
Infanticide was not unusual in the ancient world. But in Sparta, it was managed by the state with chilling efficiency. What mattered most was not the individual, but the nation. Weak individuals were not allowed to drain the strength of one of the ancient world’s mightiest military empires.
The Spartan mentality has not been relegated to ancient history. A look at the modern era demonstrates that the Spartan view of the human person as valued only as a vehicle for utilitarian efficiency has repeated itself with tragic results. In October of 1939 the Nazis, experts in lies, deceit, and cruelty, introduced in Germany a program of euthanasia with the stated purpose of giving a merciful death “to patients considered incurable according to the best available human judgment of their state of health.” With the code name “Aktion T 4,” Hitler personally ordered the widespread "mercy killing" of the mentally disabled, the mentally ill, epileptics, cripples, Down's syndrome children and the senile. The Nazis wanted to rid the state of those deemed “unfit.”
After the Second World War, it was discovered that 70,273 individuals died in six "euthanasia" centers between January 1940 and August 1941. By the end of the war, even young people labeled as juvenile delinquents were being euthanized. Nazi Germany’s ideological justification to relieve the chronically ill of their suffering and to relieve the state of the unfit paved the way for the horror of mass murders and the unspeakable evil of the Shoah.
Once again, history is repeating itself; this time, not surprisingly, with the feigned desire to be compassionate. In 2002, Belgium passed a bill in favor of euthanasia, but it was only for adults, but the nearby Netherlands was more liberal. There, with parental consent, children, as young as 12 years old, can be euthanized. On Thursday, February 13, 2014, the Belgian Parliament endorsed euthanasia for terminally ill children without any age limit. Belgium now has the dishonorable distinction of being the first country in the world to sanction mercy-killing without any respect for age.
The Belgian law will now allow children who are terminally ill and are in great pain to request their own death as long as their parents give consent. Just think about it. Children deciding to end their own lives. The very thought is abhorrent. Can children actually make such a decision? After all, in this country, children under the age of 18 cannot legally make the choice to buy alcohol. They cannot vote. And, under federal law, they do not have the maturity necessary to give free consent to sexual relations. Yet, now in Belgium, children less than 12 years old can decide to die.
Irrespective of the moral law, minors simply do not have the intellectual capacity to make a life-death decision. They have not yet gained the necessary perspective that comes from life-experience. They cannot distinguish the immediate results of their decisions from their long-term results. Young people so often act on impulse, not on reason. Still less is a child suffering under the burden of physical suffering and emotional distress able to make such a decision.
Just as unreasonable as handing this decision to children is the total disregard of Belgian law-makers to the present state of medicine. Doctors today can provide valuable, effective palliative care. Such care alleviates suffering as death approaches. It allows patients to pass from this life surrounded by love. With palliative care, parents can be compassionate to their terminally ill children. They can provide relief and support, while respecting their child’s God-given dignity. There is no need “to put them down” to end their suffering.
Do we really want to see disabled children and suffering children legally put to death? Is it really good for children to know that, if they develop a chronic illness that is burdensome to their families or if they suffer from terminal cancer, their parents have the legal right to subject them to “mercy-killing?”
Are parents and relatives who find it difficult to deal with terminal illness or terrible disabilities really entitled to simply euthanize their children? It is the nightmare of every parent to think of their child as sick or suffering. Shouldn’t the most advanced societies seek to assist parents in caring for a child who is dying rather than trying to accelerate the process of dying under the false rubric of “death with dignity?” Is euthanasia a way to remove the burden of suffering? Or is it a way to remove the burden of care?
Samuel Johnson once said, “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.” On a wider scale, the true measure of a society is its compassion toward its weakest members. What kind of a society are we creating?
Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI warned against the culture of death. Continuing their strong support of life, Pope Francis has denounced today's “throw-away culture” that allows everything and everyone to be discarded. The Holy Father said that it is a “culture that always leaves people out: that leaves children out, that leaves young people out, that leaves the elderly out, that leaves out all those who aren’t necessary, who don’t produce…”
During a speech in 2007, Cardinal Bergoglio (later to be elected as Pope Francis) compared abortion to a death sentence. But, if we wish to be honest, we must admit that, once the law allows parents to give the death penalty to their unborn children, what logic prohibits them from giving the death penalty to those who are already born? Where does it end?
On August 3, 1941, during the atrocities of the Nazi regime, Bishop Clemens von Galen stepped into his cathedral pulpit and spoke out in clear and uncertain terms about “the enemy within.” He informed the faithful of the many mentally ill patients whom the Nazis deemed useless and therefore put to death. He sounded the alarm for what actually followed: the putting down of the infirm, the disabled and the senile. The Lion of Munster roared from his pulpit:
“If you establish and apply the principle that you can kill 'unproductive' fellow human beings, then woe betide us all when we become old and frail! If one is allowed to kill the unproductive people then woe betide the invalids who have used up, sacrificed and lost their health and strength in the productive process. If one is allowed forcibly to remove one's unproductive fellow human beings, then woe betide loyal soldiers who return to the homeland seriously disabled, as cripples, as invalids. If it is once accepted that people have the right to kill 'unproductive' fellow humans - and even if initially it only affects the poor defenseless mentally ill - then, as a matter of principle, murder is permitted for all unproductive people, in other words for the incurably sick, the people who have become invalids through labor and war, for us all when we become old, frail and therefore unproductive.”
The Nazis did not take kindly to the bishop’s attack. In retaliation, they beheaded three priests, leaving the bishop alive for fear of making him a martyr. All the while, the Nazis secretly continued their program of euthanasia. Today, the same program in Belgium is being trumpeted publically as compassion. One man in the public gallery of Belgium's parliament bravely shouted out “murderers!” Are there enough people left in our society today to label euthanasia by its true name?
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.