While COVID-19 has taken a devastating toll on the elderly population all over the world, in Sweden it was euthanasia, not sickness, that contributed most alarmingly to this group’s death count. Recently emerged reports say that nursing home residents symptomatic of COVID-19 were given morphine and respiratory-inhibiting drugs, placed on palliative care, and cut off from supplementary oxygen, intravenous fluids and nutrition. Subject to this procedure, nursing home residents make up 50% of Sweden’s COVID-19 deaths so far.
According to global news outlet BioEdge, “the problem appears to have been the guidelines issued by the National Board of Health and Welfare.” These guidelines, issued early on in the pandemic, recommended that doctors carefully assess elderly COVID-19 patients, weighing overall health and the prospects for recovery, before deciding whether to send them to hospitals. In reality, however, the “problem” goes much further back- the legalization of Euthanasia in Sweden in 2010.
Granted, the law passed in Sweden allowed only passive euthanasia, in which the patient’s life support is withdrawn. Active euthanasia, such as the administration of lethal substances to a patient, was still illegal. Yet it is easy to see how this trivial distinction slipped away in the fearful atmosphere of a public health crisis. Sweden’s health advisory intended to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed with nursing home residents. But, only in a country where assisted suicide was already normalized could those instructions have been interpreted as authorization to kill off elderly patients.
This heartbreaking incident demonstrates why fighting euthanasia remains a central focus of the pro-life movement. Some opponents of abortion hesitate to condemn euthanasia based on the idea that in the latter case, the autonomous individual freely chooses to die, while abortion kills an innocent individual that obviously expressed no such wish. Still, putting aside the Christian stipulation that human dignity prohibits the taking of any human life, Sweden’s crisis shows that legalizing euthanasia endangers that very autonomy of sick or elderly individuals, the ability to choose.
The patients euthanized in Swedish nursing homes were not aware that lethal drugs were being given to them, nor did they express a desire to end their lives. Yet, under the precedent that the lives of some are less worthy of preserving than others, euthanasia was used to sacrifice elderly patients for a “greater good”- keeping hospital space open for young people who are perceived as more valuable to society. In this way, euthanasia fosters the dangerous narrative that non-workers are a burden on communities and families. Even in situations where patients are offered euthanasia without force (unlike with these victims in Sweden), legal validation of this narrative puts pressure on older individuals to “choose” death, and so perpetuates a cyclical destruction of innocent life.
Sweden is far from the only nation to allow euthanasia: the practice is legal today in parts of Australia, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Switzerland, and several US States. It is chilling to think that in all these countries, acceptance of euthanasia is creating an environment in which a few broad guidelines for dealing with Coronavirus could have resulted in the same deadly interpretation. Once again, this pandemic has laid bare the real threat that a culture of death poses to the most vulnerable members of society. Only by restoring respect for basic human dignity in the public sphere can we hope to prevent future tragedy.