Posts Tagged 'moral'

Preparing for D-day

By Harry van Versendaal

It was 1995 when Juul Bovenberg’s father became seriously ill. After a short but painful spell on his sickbed, Mr Bovenberg asked his GP to take away his suffering by taking away his life. The family and the doctor agreed to the man’s final wish to choose a dignified death over endless, unavoidable pain.

When the GP visited the house to carry out the euthanasia, for once Bovenberg’s attention was not focused on her ill father. In fact, the 23-year-old Juul could not help stare at the man who had come to end her father’s life.

“I noticed how nervous he was. His whole body was shivering, and I saw his relief after he was done. As his car left the driveway, I realized how difficult this must have been for him. He was the one to actually pull the trigger. I asked myself: How will he return home; what does he feel right now?” she explains now.

But it would be years before Bovenberg, a Dutch filmmaker in her late 30s, would begin to search for an answer. In 2009, she made a documentary inspired by that incident. “A Deadly Dilemma: Euthanasia from a Doctor’s Perspective” – which was screened last week at the 2nd International Health Film Festival on Kos – follows three Dutch GPs during each of their preparations for and the sequel to performing euthanasia on one of their patients. The movie, which won the jury’s second prize for medium-length films, came after last year’s screening of John Zaritsky’s “The Suicide Tourist,” a compelling documentary about an American Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patient’s decision to make use of assisted suicide in a Swiss clinic.

Voluntary euthanasia has been legal in the Netherlands since 2002. Doctors are allowed to help terminally ill patients to die, provided they follow a set of strict regulations designed to prevent abuse. Patients must be terminally ill adults facing a future of “unbearable” suffering. They must have made a voluntary, considered and persistent request to die, while a second, independent physician must give the green light before the procedure is carried out. Holland was one of the first countries to legalize mercy killing, although the practice had been unofficially tolerated for decades.

Voluntary euthanasia and/or assisted suicide, which has also been legalized in Belgium, Luxemburg, Switzerland and the US states of Oregon and Washington, is still very much the subject of controversy involving moral, medical, religious and philosophical questions. Notwithstanding the title of Bovenberg’s documentary, the doctors featuring in it seem to have no second thoughts about the ethics of the practice. What they do seem to carry is the mammoth emotional burden about being the ones to shut down the circuit. “You are not trained to kill someone,” one of them says in the movie. An ethical decision is not necessarily an easy decision.

“I didn’t want to make a film about the moral aspect of euthanasia,” Bovenberg says. “It is about the feelings of GPs in a country where euthanasia is legal. Even for doctors that morally accept euthanasia, it remains a heavy subject, having to apply it. A lot of people have the wrong idea about euthanasia in the Netherlands, as if this does not mean anything to a doctor. But a doctor has feelings too.”

In the movie, we see the doctors holding their regular meetings with their terminally ill patients, discussing with them and their relatives as they regress. The process is emotionally difficult and, in some cases, practically almost impossible. A heavily paralyzed woman suffering from ALS struggles to communicate with the doctor by moving her thumb and, when this becomes impossible, with slight nods of her head. Her husband sits alone in the backyard. The doctor is worried that her rapidly deteriorating patient will soon no longer be able to give her (legally required) consent. In the end, she doesn’t have to, as the woman dies of natural causes.

Another doctor frequents the gym to sweat out his stress. He chats with colleagues and takes care of “normal” patients. And then comes D-day. He prepares the lethal potion. Driving his car to the house of his patient, a shockingly calm and cool-headed man suffering from a hereditary metabolic disease, the poison sitting in a brown bag on the back seat, he wonders about his patient’s feelings about physical contact. “Is he the type to hug and embrace?”

Bovenberg, who lives on a houseboat in Amsterdam, studied documentary and production at the Dutch Film and Television Academy (NFTVA) in Amsterdam. She is the winner of the prestigious Nipkowschijf award for the VPRO Dutch television series “Veldpost.” Her “Looking for Loedertje” was nominated for the Dutch Academy Award while “Laura is my Father” was nominated at the Cinekid Festival. “A Deadly Dilemma” is her twelfth movie.

“Why do you do it?” the director asks the third doctor, who is preparing to end the life of a young woman who has cancer. “In the end, because of my love for my patients,” he replies.

Ultimately, they all feel they have done the right thing; they all feel relieved. But don’t get the wrong impression. “You never get used to it. It’s the hardest thing to do.”

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Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Google “democracy” and “China” and you get Google. Following a series of highly sophisticated, government-guided attacks on its network, the world’s largest search engine has indicated that it might pull out of the world’s fastest-growing market. The Chinese may not quite have succeeded in nailing jello to a wall, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, but a shutdown of Google.cn would nevertheless be a setback for cyber-optimists who think that digital technology can increase the power of individuals fighting against authoritative regimes.

Google entered the Chinese market in 2006 on the condition it would accept official censorship. Google, of course, is a corporation; and corporations do not behave philanthropically. Nevertheless, the company’s decision was seen as being, at least partially, driven by its “don’t be evil” motto – an overriding belief in the liberalizing effect of information. Some evil, its owners suggested at the time, was unavoidable – or at least necessary if Google were to become the west’s Trojan horse behind China’s so-called Great Fire Wall.

The assumption was typical enlightenment optimism fanned by a faith in universal human progress powered by science and reason. More sober observers have denounced such dreamy optimism as an illusion – what British philosopher John Gray calls “the Prozac of the thinking classes.” Modernity has made us more effective, but it has not made us better humans.

The fact is technology is neutral. History is full of applications that have been used for benign as well as evil purposes – nuclear power, biotechnology, drugs and, now, the Web. The Internet carries in it neither despotism nor freedom. The unprecedented expressive capability and subversive potential of self-documenting bloggers and free-rights activists has come hand-in-hand with unprecedented state power to document, filter and identify dissidents as they leave their digital fingerprints throughout cyberspace.

But even pessimists should agree that although the experience of Iran, Burma and China has exposed the weaknesses of twitter revolutionaries in the face of a ruthless regime, the mere crushing of these cyber-driven protests and enhanced reporting across the globe has exposed the cracks in official depictions of reality. Iran’s mullahs are feeling the heat.

Google’s purportedly ethical concerns in the China standoff have prompted praise as well as skepticism. “Google’s motives may be mixed, but it has, at last, done the right thing,” an editorial in UK’s Guardian noted, while John Gapper, a business writer for the Financial Times, said that “it takes some guts to walk away from the world’s largest potential market.”

With only some 17 percent of search queries and 33 percent of revenue, Google’s share was dwarfed by that of home-grown rival Baidu. Doing business in China, some analysts insist, was simply not worth it.

Like Sarah Lacy, a columnist for TechCrunch, a Silicon Valley site. “I’ll give Google this much: They’re taking a bad situation and making something good out of it, both from a human and business point of view. I’m not saying human rights didn’t play into the decision, but this was as much about business,” she said. For Bill Thompson of the BBC, Google’s decision is inconsequential. “Threatening to pull out of China is like threatening to spit on a whale,” he said.

What many commentators seem to miss is that, in a capitalist world, economic and moral arguments often coincide. Even if Google is not interested in democratization per se, it still has a stake in the free flow of information. Google’s objective – providing easy and fast access to comprehensive and unbiased information – is best served in an open, uncensored environment. “Openness for China is a means to an end – prosperity and development – but not a value,” wrote Roger Cohen in The New York Times. It’s pretty much the same for Google.

Another point lost in the haze of China-bashing is that, again much like China, Google is itself a greedy, monopolistic behemoth, an egregious privacy-violator. For every term or phrase fired into its search box, the company will keep track of time, date, cookie ID, Internet IP address, and search terms (hence the rise of so-called “interest-based advertising”). Benevolent as the current owners of Google are, or claim to be, no one can be certain what the future holds – and not just for the simple reason that the company, like any company, may change hands. Technology is by nature unpredictable. The Industrial Revolution destroyed Britain’s social fabric but also provided the tools of Empire.

The unprecedented level of interaction makes the Internet the most powerful of media. Gloomy futurists have often warned against an Orwellian-type digital dystopia. What they, and Orwell, probably never imagined is that we would one day voluntarily feed Big Brother with our private information. As one of the Party slogans flashing on the walls of 1984’s Ministry of Truth noted, “Ignorance is strength.”


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