I Accuse!

· Medical Assistance in Dying,Suffering

Ich klage an, or I Accuse, is a little-known German film.

Although, at the time it was made, it was very important.

Produced in 1941, the film features the trial of a husband who killed his wife to end her suffering from multiple sclerosis. Consider the conversation had by the jury prior to the appearance of the final witness, a physician who refused to kill the wife.

Ich klage an was commissioned by Joseph Goebbels, director of the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment. Its purpose? To draw on the empathy of viewers and bring them to the conclusion that it is not only understandable that the man killed his wife. It was his moral duty. At the trial’s conclusion, he points a finger at German society: How heartless can you be?  

Softening the view of the German people led to the acceptance of a euthanasia program called Aktion T4 (short for Tiergartenstrasse 4, the office from which the program was directed). The targets for murder included children and adults who did not represent the height of health and wellbeing. This included individuals who had a disability (whether physical or mental) or chronic health conditions, gay men, and, of course, anyone who was not Aryan. The program was extended even to those whose economic situation was a drain on society.

How the Nazi regime went about killing these people was not widely known. The soft description of this program was that it cared for people who were pitiable. And sometimes they died. After all, their suffering was incurable. It couldn’t be relieved by medicine. And it was intolerable.

But behind the curtain of public enlightenment was a value judgement: lebensunwertes Leben, or “life unworthy of life.” Those subject to murder were deemed “useless eaters.” Aktion T4 amounted to hundreds of thousands of deaths and paved the way for the Holocaust.

I do not accuse Canada of consciously working toward a eugenics program by making medical assistance in dying, or MAiD, a legal medical practice. But I can’t help but see similarities in how MAiD is described by its advocates today and how the jury in Ich klage an interprets the husband’s act. The conversation held by jury members is a microcosm of a conversation that has taken place in Canada for over thirty years. It’s one that led to court rulings allowing for what became MAiD; to the Criminal Code’s legal regulations of the practice of MAiD (framed as an exception to legal duties tending to preservation of life); and to a partnership between the federal government and a self-styled organization of MAiD providers to develop best practices. In the film, token words are given to one juror who indicates God would not allow such an act. But the jury appears persuaded that mercy killing is a “worthy moral act.”*

My fear is that judgements like this are based on pity for other people – people who, in one way or another, we would not want to be like. In Canada, when it comes to intolerable suffering, the emphasis is placed on the rights of people whose primary cause of suffering is chronic disease or disability or (soon) mental illness to receive MAiD. It is not placed on the responsibilities of the community to provide care that attends to those needs – not only physical and physiological needs, but also the need to feel valued by others.

Jesus was oriented toward suffering people. But not so he could end their suffering by ending their lives. Jesus brought people new life. Consider the story of Jesus’s engagement with a man who could not walk – a man whose friends went to the extent of breaking into a house where Jesus was teaching. They climb up to the roof and tear it open to deliver him to Jesus.

That’s compassion!

Impressed by their effort, Jesus says to the man,

“Child, your sins are forgiven.” (Mark 2:5)

That’s compassion!

Only later, and only after an argument with scribes who questioned his authority to forgive sin, does Jesus deliver the man from the cause of his suffering.

“I say to you, stand up, take your mat, and go to your home.” (Mark 2:11)

That’s compassion!

But this compassionate attitude and practice toward suffering people appears to be in decline today.

Should we not be concerned?


*If you want to learn more about Nazi “morality” at this time, watch or listen to an excellent episode of The Rest is History podcast, which asks, “Are [the Nazis] aware that they’re the ‘baddies’?”