The Nazis were condemned for their policy of euthanasia from 1939-45, so what is different now?
Hitler's treatment of disabled children is today being carried on under a cloak of legality, writes Alban Maginness
Recently in Belfast, at a conference on end-of-life care, Tracy Harkin of the Iona Institute (NI) highlighted what she termed "the slippery slope" towards euthanasia in the world today. She referred to Pope John Paul II in 1995 in a document called the Gospel of Life, where he prophetically spoke about the "culture of death" that was engulfing Western society. He was referring to widespread abortion and the growing emergence of euthanasia being discussed in some European countries.
Pope John Paul II warned that: "Choices once unanimously considered criminal and rejected by the common moral sense are gradually becoming socially acceptable."
At the time his words may have seemed to be exaggerated and even extreme, but when one looks at the rapid development of euthanasia, in particular in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, and assisted suicide in Switzerland and Germany, there is little doubt today that his warning was far-seeing.
As well as contemporary Western Europe, similar measures have been introduced in some states in America and also in Canada. The gradual spread of legalised euthanasia and assisted suicide is steadily making ground and is very frightening.
In the UK the current law correctly prohibits assisted suicide and euthanasia, but there have been 10 attempts to introduce assisted suicide as a legally available procedure. The last attempt at this was in 2015 when the proposed Bill was defeated in the House of Commons by 330 votes to an uncomfortably respectable 118 votes.
Although seen off on that occasion, there is little doubt that there is a persistent and determined lobby, fuelled by some in the media, that will not give up on this issue. They are also hugely encouraged by the growth of such measures in the rest of Europe and elsewhere.
In the Netherlands euthanasia was originally introduced in 2002 to deal with hard cases of people suffering from terminal illness. It was strongly argued at the time that it was compassionate to end the suffering of somebody who was doomed to die in any event.
These cases, it was claimed, would be small in number and rare in practice. Last year there were more than 6,000 cases of euthanasia recorded in the Netherlands, whereas in its first year (2002) there were 1,882.
But more important even than the horrific leap in numbers is the fact that cases have moved on from the terminally ill to those suffering from psychiatric conditions, addictions or other non-terminal health conditions.
So, there has been a radical step-change in the sort of cases which are now regarded as legal under Dutch law. Instead of hard cases, where people are dying from incurable illnesses, the law has evolved into a broader range of medical conditions to qualify for euthanasia.
This is contrary to the original arguments put forward for euthanasia and represents a serious widening of the applicability of this law into a more generalised procedure.
Belgium has also undergone an almost identical process, where the legalisation of euthanasia has been approved. In 2003 there were 235 deaths and in 2016 there were 2,024 - an extraordinary jump.
As in the Netherlands, the qualification of having a terminal medical condition has been in practice substituted for non-terminal medical conditions, whether physical or mental.
The whole issue of consent has been either ignored, or in practice discarded and there is virtually no oversight nor effective protections against misuse or abuse of the system. Shockingly, euthanasia is now available even for children.
What is exceptionally disturbing is the apparent normalisation and acceptance of euthanasia in the contemporary world, whether in Europe, the United States or Canada.
This further undermines the value of life in those countries, but also it impacts on the rest of the world, which is absorbing the misguided notion that somehow state-authorised, legally sanctioned killing of human beings in certain circumstances is socially and morally acceptable.
As Pope John Paul II said 23 years ago: "Moral crimes such as abortion and euthanasia are viewed as individual rights."
When we study the barbarous history of the Nazis, we can see that the origin of their extermination programme was in 1939 and started off with the euthanasia of mental patients and disabled children.
Rightly, the world condemned them for their gross atrocities, but what the Nazis started out with in 1939, some countries are now carrying out for themselves under the cloak of legality.
Clearly it was not right for the Nazis, so why then should it be regarded as right now for others?
Euthanasia not only corrupts medical ethics but also erodes respect for human life, which is the very foundation for human rights in the world.
Where all this will lead in the future is the question.
But, sadly, once opened, this Pandora's Box of deathly measures could lead anywhere.