Till death they won’t part

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

With Valentine’s Day this year coinciding with the day when Catholics are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, we can blend the sweet with the bittersweet aspects of love and relationships.

My thoughts turned to this after coming across reports about former Dutch prime minister Dries van Agt dying “together and hand in hand” with his wife of 70 years, Eugenie, in a case of “duo euthanasia.” Both were 93 years old.

Van Agt was Dutch PM between 1977 and 1982. He had a brain hemorrhage in 2019 and never fully recovered, according to reports. Both he and his wife, whom he called “my girl,” were said to be seriously ill and “couldn’t live without each other.”

Their double euthanasia gives a new dimension to the marriage vow of togetherness “till death do us part.”

Euthanasia and assisted suicide have been legal in the Netherlands since 2002 under six conditions including unbearable suffering with no prospect of improvement or reasonable alternative, and a voluntary and well-considered request. An independent assessment is needed for approval and due medical care must be exercised.

Since 2002, thousands have opted for assisted death in the Netherlands, with 8,720 in 2022 alone – pretty steep in a population at the time of nearly 17.6 million. Of the 8,720 (up from the 6,126 deaths in 2018), there were 29 couples, accounting for 5.1 percent.

In 2016, a former member of parliament belonging to Van Agt’s party, Jozef van der Heijden, and his wife Gonnie also died in a double euthanasia.

Apart from the Netherlands, euthanasia was legal as of last year in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, Luxembourg, New Zealand and Spain. The implementing rules for the legalization are being finalized in Portugal. Switzerland allows self-administered, medication-assisted suicide.

In the US, active euthanasia remains illegal, but Oregon became the first state to legalize assisted suicide in 1994. Between 2008 and 2021, other states that followed were Washington, Montana, Vermont, California, Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey, Maine and New Mexico.

*      *      *

Seeing people in more states and countries opting for control over their exit from this world, the spread of legalization could pick up pace.

Why is this happening?

Advances in medicine, nutrition and health care have made life spans longer. More important than the life span, however, is the quality of life. Who wants to live to be a hundred when you have lost your memory and motor control, if you’re in chronic pain, and you need assistance to take a bath and go to the toilet?

It’s not enough to have a long life; people also want to live well, to be productive into their twilight years, and not to be a burden on anyone.

The stories of people in their 80s and 90s joining competitive sports and sky-jumping are inspiring. It’s heartening to see 78-year-old Dolly Parton with her high-pitched voice still intact, performing a cover of Linda Perry’s “What’s Up?” and a duet on “Seasons” with Bebe Rexha. But obviously, not everyone can be like Dolly Parton.

There’s also the 72-year-old woman joining the beauty contest in Buenos Aires in a bid to represent Argentina in the regular Miss Universe pageant, which has lifted age restrictions. You go, girl! I told my 88-year-old mom we would also join, to be the first mother-and-daughter contestants in Miss Universe. We’re guaranteed to lose, but we could get product endorsements. She found it hilarious and told me to have new lower dentures made for her ASAP, to give her a nice smile.

Alongside stories of the elderly living their life to the fullest, however, are the tragic ones, such as that of action star Bruce Willis.

I know a wealthy guy in the finance sector who spent the final two years of his life bedridden in a private room in a hospital. His life savings went to his hospital upkeep, and the friends who visited him dwindled. Some said they minimized their visits because they found it painful to see him shrinking physically and struggling to communicate.

If euthanasia is legal in the Philippines, would he have opted for it?

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People want control over their own life, so it’s not unusual to want to have control over one’s death.

The Catholic faith considers suicide a grave offense constituting a mortal sin; only God can take away the divine gift of life. But the Church now allows Catholic funeral rites and burial for those who die by suicide. Dries van Agt was a Catholic.

A report in UK’s The Telegraph quoted Constance de Vries of the Euthanasia Expertise Center as telling Dutch newspaper De Volkskraant: “Many people dread the prospect of having to continue on their own, especially when they are 80 and no longer so flexible.”

The dread is acute particularly in places where people or couples live by themselves.

Fortunately for the elderly in the Philippines, multigenerational households remain the norm, in many cases assisted by house helpers. In such households, there is always someone around to care for children, the elderly and anyone needing assistance. (This setup also has to be among the reasons why the country has the highest rate of dog ownership in Asia.)

The younger generations, however, don’t seem to be keen about sustaining this setup. People who live alone, or only with a spouse or partner tend to be more open to the legalization of euthanasia.

For those who have lost their life partner, loneliness is keener in the day of hearts. When a spouse returns to dust, the one left behind wants a Valentine’s date in the afterlife.

Some prefer going to the other side together.

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