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A Great Grand Duke

Euthanasia legislation passed in Luxembourg, but not without trouble from its monarch and a constitutional amendment.
by Brother Matthew Schmitz, LC | Source:

Grand Duke Henri is the constitutional monarch of a tiny country nestled between Germany, France, and Belgium that goes by the name of Luxembourg. It has the highest GDP per capita in the world, and in spite of its size, occupies an influential place in both European history and current politics.

Henri’s a family man, happily married with five kids. Apart from the fact that he studied at a military academy in England, grew up in high society, and speaks a handful to languages fluently, he’s not all that different from one of us. For an American it can certainly be a little hard to picture royalty, especially when the only kind we’re used to are John Wayne, Elvis, and LeBron James. The inevitable question is quite simple really: What does a man who is the equivalent to the King of a country slightly smaller than Rhode Island but with a population of merely 480,000 actually do? Suffice to say that in his position he has to deal with other heads of state and look after his homeland, but that in many ways his work is very straightforward, ceremonial, and routine.

It was, that is, until December 2008.

Formal proposals had been put forward in Luxembourg’s Parliament to enact a new law that would legalize euthanasia.  All of a sudden this smoothly running, wealthy country went into shock:  the Grand Duke essentially said that “if that law comes out of Parliament I won’t sign it,” citing reasons of conscience.

Socialist lawmakers drove the proposal forward in Parliament, and it passed by a slim margin, 30-26. For a law to go into effect, it has to sit for at least three months and then be confirmed by a second vote. If it passes the second time, it then continues on to the Grand Duke for his signature.

Although the Grand Duke’s signature is necessary, the understanding of politicians and the Luxembourg constitution is that when a law comes to the Grand Duke’s desk he is supposed to sign it and not ask questions.
This time, Grand Duke Henri just couldn’t bring himself to do it.

The arguments in favor of euthanasia are not easily set aside, and neither faction should claim that it has an easy solution. At its core is that great mystery of human suffering.  One side says that every individual has the right to end his life when he wants, and that doctors can determine if a terminally ill person should continue living or not. The other side says that we have the obligation to care for the sick and suffering, and that life should be cherished and protected until its natural end. On the latter side we find the Grand Duke Henri. He said that “for reasons of conscience” he can’t sign that law. 

At the same time Henri didn’t think that his objection alone should block the law from happening.  He didn’t want to circumvent the democratic process established by his country’s Constitution.  After all, the law had passed in Parliament, and a recent poll shows that 70 percent of the citizens approved of its passage. Taking this duly into account, Henri was in touch with the Prime Minister and was open to a constitutional amendment that would make his signature a mere formality. Parliament had already pounced on this idea and before the law Henri could do no more than what he had done already. This change was proposed shortly after and went into effect as it was not challenged by a popular referendum. Then, Tuesday, March 17, the law passed again in Parliament and was definitively approved.

In his views on euthanasia, Henri represents the vast worldwide majority:  assisted suicide or euthanasia are legal only in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, and the states of Oregon and Washington.

In his actions as a political leader, however, he may not represent the vast majority.  Politicians have a difficult job; the choices they make on a daily basis affect the lives of millions.  They have to answer to their parties, their voters, lobbyists, pressure groups, public opinion and so on.  But Grand Duke Henri reminds us that at the end of the day, in everyday life or in big life-changing issues – in this case life or death issues – we always have to answer to our conscience.  He’s a great Grand Duke, all right.

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