The Briefing 02-26-15

The Briefing 02-26-15

The Briefing


February 26, 2015

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


It’s Thursday, February 26, 2015.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Netherlands’ booming euthanasia business shocking display of  culture of death trajectory 

The current cover story in Newsweek magazine declares Death Becomes Them. The text under the title reads like this: “The Dutch are choosing euthanasia if they’re tired of living, others may soon follow.” It’s a truly ominous article about one of the most lamentable development of the modern age. One of the things we should note is that for the better part of the last several decades both liberals and conservatives in the culture had generally shunned the very idea of euthanasia. Even as the issue of abortion has been deeply divisive, tragically so, the issue of euthanasia has failed (until quite recently) to gain much support on the left. But what we’re witnessing is that the idea of personal autonomy has now spread to its ultimate point – what we might call the Omega point of the argument.

The argument is now that human beings have such an absolute autonomy that they have the right to be the absolute determinators of when they will die and how they will die and under what circumstances they will die. This cover story in Newsweek magazine is plowing a lot of new ground and it’s all exceedingly tragic. But at least it’s honest. This is one of most important exposés of how the culture of death has been moving forward in the Netherlands. And as the cover declares, others may soon follow.

Winston Ross, reporting for Newsweek, writes,

“Last month, while traveling through Europe, I met a 65-year-old woman in Amsterdam determined never to wind up like my grandmother. Jannie Willemsen is in near-perfect health, but as we sat down at a small café, she showed me papers that laid out the circumstances under which she no longer wants to live: if she’s severely and permanently lame; if she can no longer leave the house on her own; if she’s dependent on others to eat, drink, shower and put on her clothes; if she goes blind or deaf or is suffering from dementia—most of what my grandmother experienced in her final months.”

Willemsen said,

“I’m an autonomous person. For me, it seems a disaster not to be able to go out and visit friends, to a concert, to the theater.”

There you have, in the very beginning of Ross’s article, the declaration of where the culture of death inevitably leads. When you have a claim of absolute personal autonomy, even to the point of dictating the terms and the timing of one’s death, you have a statement such as made by the 65-year-old woman in Amsterdam; a 65-year-old woman Ross points out who is now in very good health. But she’s defining the terms of her death as what she want to take place not just if she is facing some kind of terminal illness, not just if some medical authority defines her to be an intractable suffering, but if she is unable to go to the theater, to go to a concert, to be (in her words) functionally autonomous.

Ross gets right to the point when he writes,

“What she wants, if the circumstances merit it, is doctor-assisted euthanasia, which is booming in the Netherlands. In 2013, according to the latest data, 4,829 people across the country chose to have a doctor end their lives. That’s one in every 28 deaths in the Netherlands, and triple the number of people who died this way in 2002. The Dutch don’t require proof of a terminal illness to allow doctors to ‘help’ patients die. Here, people can choose euthanasia if they can convince two physicians they endure ‘unbearable’ suffering, a definition that expands each year.”

Now we need to stop right there in terms of this report and recognize what Winston Ross is telling us. He’s telling us that even as assisted suicide or euthanasia has been legal in the Netherlands for now well over a decade, the initial Dutch reluctance to go forward with the procedure is given way to the fact that there’s now, in his words, a booming business in assisted suicide. You’ll also note that he points out that the definition used by doctors legally in the Netherlands for what constitutes unbearable suffering is, as he acknowledges, expanding every single year.

Just to make sure we don’t miss is point, Ross writes,

“The Dutch can now choose death if they’re tired of living.”

He also points out that technically that’s still illegal in the Netherlands; in other words, it’s still illegal actually to say that you want to have assisted suicide simply because you’re tired of living. But as he points out, that is effectively what is available right now because even as the Dutch law says it’s illegal, no Dutch physician has been ever prosecuted for a wrongful assisted suicide even as – and this is one most chilling things in his article – at least five cases per year are judged by the Dutch government to have been improper. In other words, they’re never should’ve the permission for assisted suicide. But the doctors have yet never been prosecuted, so long as they promise never to do the same thing again.

Remember we’re talking about the termination, the ending of a human life. We’re not talking about some mistake that can be responded to with the word ‘oops,’ we’re talking about the termination of a human life, the intentional act of bringing about a human death. Later in the article Ross writes, and I quote,

“In the first few years after the Netherlands decriminalized euthanasia in 2002, the number of cases declined. Then, in 2007, the statistics began a steady climb, an average jump of 15 percent a year.”

One of the doctors involved in the legalization movement said,

“‘He didn’t see it [this growth] coming.’ The situation has put him and other doctors in the country in an ethical quandary. [The doctor said,] ‘It’s a feeling of not being quite certain about where you’re going,’”

Very importantly Ross also points out that even as the grounds for unbearable suffering have been expanding every single year, so are the persons who have been declared to be legally competent to demand assisted suicide. He writes,

“In 2005, lawmakers decriminalized another form of euthanasia—for babies. In recent years, the number of cases of newborn euthanasia has declined—because parents are acting sooner.”

Now what in the world is he talking about there? He’s telling us that even as the Dutch government made the euthanasia of infants legal it isn’t happening as much as people might have expected because, as he explains, the county has introduced a new system of prenatal screening that allows parents to terminate pregnancy if ultrasound results revealed severe congenital malformations within 20 weeks of conception. As he says, when it comes to killing these babies, the parents are not not acting, they’re just acting sooner; they’re terminating the pregnancy before the baby is born.

Note however that the euthanasia of babies is still legal in the Netherlands, and they didn’t stop there:

“The Dutch didn’t stop at babies. Minors in the Netherlands are now allowed to choose euthanasia, too. Children ages 12 to 15 may ask to die if they can get parents’ permission. After age 16, young people can make the decision with only ‘parental involvement.’”

In other words, no parental permission is absolutely necessary. He then cites pediatrician Eduard Verhagen, who helped establish the Dutch euthanasia guidelines for infants, he says – chillingly – that the law should go even further:

“If we say the cutoff line is age 12, there might be children of 11 years and nine months who are very well capable of determining their own fate and making their own decisions, but they’re not allowed to ask for euthanasia.”

There you have a physician saying that even the cutoff age of 12 is too high; that, as he says, there might be a child of 11 years and nine months who, to use his horrifying words, would be “very well capable of determining their own fate.” So in the Netherlands we have seen the demand for personal autonomy begin with the right of those with a terminal illness with intractable suffering defined by a physician to have the right to assisted suicide, then it was extended to the category of unbearable suffering and the category of unbearable suffering has been expanding every year. Then it was expanded to infants, then it was expanded the minors – where children between 12 and 16 can demand to die so long as they have a parental permission. Teenagers 16 and older don’t even need parental permission; all they need is to meet the standard of ‘parental involvement’ – that’s put in quotation marks. But then as Ross says, there are physicians in the Netherlands who aren’t even satisfied with the cutoff age of 12.

Ross then writes,

“It is hard to imagine an American pediatrician making that argument. But no one envisioned euthanasia in the Netherlands would expand the way it has in the past 13 years. Perhaps the U.S. isn’t far behind.”

There’s good reason to believe that he just may be right because not only is the so-called right of assisted suicide or euthanasia becoming legal in more and more states and jurisdictions in the United States, but the underlying worldview of personal autonomy has taken virtual hold of this culture. Already this week on The Briefing we’ve discussed how this ethic of absolute personal autonomy has led to the breakdown of the family not just in the United States, but worldwide. We saw Nicholas Eberstadt writing in the Wall Street Journal telling us that the breakdown of the family and the breakdown of marriage was largely due to the fact that adults were claiming the higher good of their own personal convenience and their personal autonomy to determine exactly what responsibilities and obligations they would be willing to accept.

Winston Ross’s article in Newsweek points out that the issue of personal autonomy is now being applied as the moral mandate when it comes to assisted suicide and euthanasia in the Netherlands. And this personal autonomy is not just extended to adults, but as we’ve just seen, even to children and teenagers. And that personal autonomy is now being asserted even for children under the age of 12. One of the doctors explaining the rise, this so-called booming business in assisted suicide in the Netherlands, told Ross that Dutch autonomy has the most to do with a steady increase in assisted suicide. In a very helpful way, Ross cites theologian Theo Boer of the Theological University in Kampen and in the Netherlands. He said,

“I like autonomy very much,”

But he went on to say,

“But it seems to have overruled other values, like solidarity, patience, making the best of things. The risk now is that people no longer search for a way to endure their suffering. Killing yourself is the end of autonomy.”

Now it would seem that almost any honest person would have to come to the conclusion that that last statement is not only true, but irrefutably true. Let me repeat those words: killing yourself is the end of autonomy. But that’s where this worldview of autonomy left unto itself inevitably must lead. It has to lead to the point that one is so autonomous that in the name of our own autonomy we can demand the autonomous right to end our own lives – at which, very clearly, autonomy comes to an end.

Boer’s statement is very interesting. Remember that first quote,

“I like autonomy very much,”

Theo Boer, according to Winston Ross’s article, was originally a proponent of assisted suicide. But the now booming business of assisted suicide in the Netherlands, the way it actually has ended up as a matter of policy and in reality, he understands that it was a very bad move. Morally speaking, it was disastrous. The culture of death took not only a step forward; it took a great leap forward in the Netherlands. And what Winston Ross is writing about in this cover story is far more ominous for the fact that what happens in the Netherlands won’t stay in the Netherlands. There is every reason to believe that where this worldview of personal autonomy leads, assisted suicide and euthanasia will inevitably follow.

And of course, there’s more to talk about here. We can talk about the shift from voluntary euthanasia to involuntary euthanasia; we can talk about the shift from a right to die to a responsibility to die. Already in the Netherlands the idea taking care of the elderly is now seen as something of an accessory – it’s optional, it shouldn’t be necessary. Because after all, assisted suicide is available so why should any elderly or infirm person, why should anyone who is seriously ill or in any way incapacitated become a burden to the family if they have the easy way out with doctor assisted suicide? That the logic that we can see playing out already. We can see it playing out in the abortion rate for babies who were diagnosed with down syndrome, we can see it playing out in the way that the elderly are already being treated – or should we say mistreated – when it comes to the end of life, with the extended family having disappeared and so many people now being under the care of institutions at the end-of-life?

We can see how the logic would spread, not only to additional categories of people, but nation by nation all the way across the Atlantic to the United States. And just remember this: just a matter of weeks ago the nation to our North, Canada, had its Supreme Court declare that there was a right to assisted suicide that was a part of that nation’s charter of rights. Writing in the February 23 edition of the Weekly Standard ethicist Wesley J Smith of the Discovery Institute points out that the Canadian Supreme Court has unleashed a moral disaster by saying that Canadians have a right to assisted suicide if they qualify as being marked by an irremediable condition. But as Wesley Smith writes,

“Even these broad words inadequately describe the truly radical social policy Canada’s Supreme Court has unleashed. For example, a treatable condition can qualify as ‘irremediable’ if the patient chooses not to pursue available remedies. So an ‘irremediable’ condition that permits life-termination may actually be wholly remediable, except that the patient would rather die than receive care.”

But Wesley Smith also tells us that many physicians are likely to be coerced into participating in assisted suicide. At the very least those who are unwilling on convictional and moral grounds to be actively involved in assisted suicide will have to refer patients to a doctor who will. Smith writes,

“That may leave doctors who embrace Hippocratic values [that is the values of the Hippocratic oath] twisting in the wind. Quebec, which legalized euthanasia last year, requires all doctors asked for death by a legally qualified patient to give the lethal jab or refer to a doctor who will. Professional medical societies in Canada also appear ready to quash physician conscience. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan, for example, recently published a draft ethics policy that would force doctors with a moral objection to providing ‘legally permissible and publicly-funded health services’—which now include euthanasia—to ‘make a timely referral to another health provider who is willing and able to .  .  . provide the service.’ If no other doctor can be found to do the deed, the original physician will be required to comply, ‘even in circumstances [this is the Quebec law] where the provision of health services conflicts with physicians’ deeply held and considered moral or religious beliefs.’”

That was written not far, far away – not across the Atlantic Ocean in the Netherlands, but right across our northern border in the province of Québec.

As I said, with the euthanasia movement with assisted suicide becoming legal in more and more nations and jurisdictions, the culture of death is not taking a step forward; it is taking a great leap forward. And in response to the secular worldview of personal autonomy comes the biblical worldview that reminds us that every single human being, made by an intentional act of the creator, is given by the creator the gift. We are given a certain realm of responsibility; we are given agency, the responsibility to choose and to make moral decisions. We are not given the gift of personal autonomy; we are not given the right to be either the author or the finishers of our own lives. We believe that our lives are divine gifts that are given to us by the creator within the confines of when he will decide we are born and when he will decide that we will die.

Between the moment of our birth and the moment of our natural death, there will be many dangers toils and snares as the hymn reminds us, there will be moments of joy and there will be moments of suffering, but those moments are suffering are to be understood within the context of biblical faith. And the Bible takes the issue of human suffering with tremendous seriousness and absolute honesty. But it’s put within a context of a biblical worldview, of life as a divine gift, and not within the worldview of personal autonomy. That worldview of personal autonomy finds its ultimate end in the end; in the demand to be the author of our own end. And in the stipulation that we are ready, if indeed we find life to be less than what we demand that it must be, we demand the right to have even someone assist us in ending our lives. And that maybe, as this 65-year-old woman in the Netherlands said, when she is no longer able to take care of herself or for that matter, when she is no longer able to go out to the theater.

2) Companies present employment as higher calling, revealing human aspiration for purpose

Finally I want to end on an article that appeared in the business section of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal; the headline, I don’t have a job. I have a higher calling. Rachel Feintzeig, writing for the Wall Street Journal, tells us about companies that are trying to tell their employees, especially younger employees, particularly the millennial, that what they’re offering is not just a job, certainly not just a career, it’s a calling. They’re not just going to be making something, they’re not going to just be conducting or performing a service, they’re going to be changing the world.
Well I’m sure we all would like to think we’re changing the world, but in this case the Journal cites global chairman John Veihmeyer of a corporation who said in a video,

“We can see ourselves as bricklayers or cathedral builders”

(I’m sure you’ve probably heard that before) the chairman was speaking in this video to the employees of his company. The company, says the Journal, held a contest for US employees to share stories and design digital posters touting the bigger impact of their jobs and it netted 42,000 submissions. They are out, according to the chairman, to change the world. What is their business? It’s a travel agency. As Feintzeig writes,

“Now, nearly every product or service from motorcycles to Big Macs seems capable of transforming humanity, at least according to some corporations. The words ‘mission,’ ‘higher purpose,’ ‘change the world’ or ‘changing the world’ were mentioned on earnings calls, in investor meetings and industry conferences 3,243 times in 2014, up from 2,318 five years ago, according to a Factiva search.”

That’s right; someone has evidently counted these things. I don’t raise this article in order to point fun of these companies, although even the Wall Street Journal seems to find it somewhat incongruous that selling hamburgers is somehow going to change. No, I raise this report because the Wall Street Journal doesn’t quite get it; and Christians really should. We’re the ones who should understand that even as every single human being is made in God’s image and even as every single one of us has been specifically individually given the divine gift of life, we also need to understand every single one of us has been made, knowing in our hearts that we were made for a purpose. We were created for some kind of purpose beyond ourselves.

There’s something very touching actually from a Christian worldview perspective about this article. It’s not wrong for people to find a world changing mission in selling hamburgers – it just points to something far beyond the hamburger, it points to something far beyond the travel agency. Whether or not the Journal recognizes it or not, whether or not it ever gets reflected or acknowledged in a corporate mission statement, what these quests, what the statement of aspiration really represent, is the knowledge that every single one of us is on this planet for a purpose. And we want that purpose to matter, not just for ourselves, but we really do hope that in some sense what we do can affect the world, can even change the world. But only the Christian worldview can sanctify that hope and aspiration into something that really will change the world.


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Podcast Transcript

1) Netherlands’ booming euthanasia business shocking display of  culture of death trajectory 

Dying Dutch: Euthanasia Spreads Across Europe, Newsweek (Winston Ross)

Euthanasia Comes to Canada, Weekly Standard (Wesley J. Smith)

2) Companies present employment as higher calling, revealing human aspiration for purpose

I Don’t Have a Job. I Have a Higher Calling., Wall Street Journal (Rachel Feintzeig)


R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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