Compassionately caring for the severely mentally ill is a challenge for every society. Many countries, including ours, are failing that challenge. Patients suffering from schizophrenia and other severe psychiatric disorders compose large proportions of the homeless and incarcerated. And the Netherlands has taken failure to new heights: The country’s growing trend of euthanizing the mentally ill most recently included a woman in her twenties.
Mercy killing in the Netherlands for psychiatric reasons is increasingly popular. It is a supposedly neat and tidy end for untidy lives and is promoted as strictly voluntary — a jewel in the crown of individual freedom and self-determination. For the mentally ill, however, the siren call of individual freedom dovetails too nicely with society’s proven intolerance of the troubling behavior of people with mental disorders. In fact, the roots of mercy killing in modern times are lodged in the unsavory and downright savage practices of the last century.
Even advocates for accepting the physically handicapped supported euthanasia for the mentally handicapped. One surprising supporter was Helen Keller. She wrote in The New Republic that the fate of the “idiot baby” whose “existence is not worthwhile” should be left to a jury of physicians. She was no friend to the idea that all human lives are inherently valuable and worthy of protection, even those of the mentally handicapped. Instead, she believed that it “is the possibilities of happiness, intelligence and power that give life its sanctity, and they are absent in the case of a poor . . . unthinking creature.”