Interview with Jos Helmich – Board Member, EXITUS ry

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Jos Helmich is a Board Member of EXITUS ry. Here we talk about his life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?

Jos Helmich: I come from the Netherlands. I grew up in a family of teachers. My parents were both active in the labour union. They were also members of the “society for public education”. I am not sure this the right term (it does not contrast with private). To explain it I need to explain something else first.

In the Netherlands, we had when I grew up something called Dutch tolerance. This didn’t mean that you respected anyone’s beliefs. Rather it meant that Socialists, Catholics, and Protestants had their own communities and didn’t step much outside their boundaries. We called those the pillars of society.

The Liberals where open to everyone, but since the others shunned their institutions they became a pillar themselves. Every pillar had its own parties, schools, newspapers, and broadcasters. So, when my parents joined this “society for public education” they joined the liberal pillar in effect.

They did it because they believed that education should be open to everyone, not just to those who believed in god. So, when possible my brother and I were sent to “public schools” (liberal) or when not available to “neutral schools” (not part of a pillar).

Secularization has slowly brought down the pillars. They still exist in rudimentary form, but they have merged and taken the shape of political entities more than religious entities.

I think part of social trouble the Netherlands is facing with people that come from other countries is that we don’t know how to relate to them. The pillars that protected the communities are gone.

Now you have to confront that stranger and it is scary. As for myself. I think it is a matter of maturity if you can confront a stranger with an open mind. I believe in cultural blending. Take the best of both worlds is my motto.

Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?

Helmich: I have epilepsy. I have a brain, but it sometimes stops to function. In the past, the medication and knowledge about it were not so good. I was sent to special schools for children with learning disabilities.

I started my education at the lowest level, then I went a step higher and then another step until I got a master’s degree in Econometrics. I have to thank my parents. They always believed in me and fought the educational and medical institutions when necessary.

Jacobsen: What is a living will? Why is it important? What are the differences in the euthanasia provisions in Holland and Finland? I ask this as you’re a Dutchie in Finland.

Helmich: A living will (A literal translation from Levenstestament in Dutch) is an expression of your free will when your body is not capable of delivering the message any more. As long as you can speak for yourself or express yourself in any other way, it is not valid.

The first living wills were templates designed by the Dutch association for voluntary euthanasia (NVVE, founded in 1973). They had no legal status at the time. They were a kind of letter that you gave to your GP making your wishes known. When they were introduced it caused some uproar in the press.

Which was also more or less the point when they were introduced. Here in Finland, I am advocating a similar tactic. In Finland, only passive euthanasia is allowed, but what happens in practice is anyone’s guess.

As for practical use of the living will, I have one. Same with my mother.  My mother has also made my brother and I sign a statement that we respect her will if/when the time comes.

She also made sure her GP has a copy of those statements and that he will execute her wishes. As for myself. I have discussed the matter with my wife. She is religious and to her it is no small matter, but I think she will respect my wishes as I will respect hers (not to do euthanasia in any circumstance).

I think it is a matter of trusting one another. One small advantage I have is that I am not a Finnish citizen. I could be returned to the Netherlands when active euthanasia cannot be applied here.

Jacobsen: What are the legal differences, and so the activist efforts’ emphases too, between the Netherlands and Finland? What are some of the cultural allowances and barriers to euthanasia in either country?

Helmich: The Netherlands was the first in the world to adopt a euthanasia law. In the Netherlands euthanasia is already an accepted practice. There are some religious pockets of resistance, but they barely count. That doesn’t mean we take it lightly.

Due process still must be followed, and emotional stress on the family and the GP (which you have often a very personal relationship with) must be taken in account. But it functions well. Note that it took the Netherlands 30 years of talking and a bit more than a decade of practice to get to this point.

Finland has not made the transition yet. The Lutheran church is here still influential, and the leader of the populist movement counts himself devout Catholic. However, there is hope things will change, because I don’t see basic cultural roadblocks. Just a delay in development.

Jacobsen: As the member of EXITUS ry board, what tasks and responsibilities come with this position?

Helmich: I am an experienced computer specialist. I have often been webmaster or editor when I support a social or cultural organization.

The technical parts are easy for me. It is hard to keep the information flowing. To do so you need a group of active people who produce articles and engage others in discussions.

Also recruiting others is important. The lifetime of an active participant is about two or three years. You usually find people among those who are engaged in discussions. It shows that they are interested in the subject and willing to do something.

Jacobsen: As EXITUS ry is an independent association, why is this independence important in the work of advocating for the adoption of an active euthanasia law in Finland?

Helmich: I just joined the club, so I am so not so familiar with the politics of this, but independence is good in the sense that we are not part of anyone’s agenda, but our own.

Jacobsen: How can people, nationally or internationally, become involved in and help with the efforts of EXITUS ry?

Jos Helmich: I am hoping from some support from NVVE. It is a big organization nowadays. As for the rest. I don’t know myself yet. I think we need some out of the box thinking here and explore alternative ways to cooperate with others.

Jacobsen: What further reading, individuals, and organizations should be kept in mind for efforts to advance euthanasia legality and sociocultural acceptance issues, especially activist ones?

Helmich: Not sure. But what I learned from half a life time of discussions in the Netherlands is that we need the Medical Doctors on our side. They need to see the value of regulation. When euthanasia happens in the grey area of medical practice the MD’s are open game for criminal prosecution.

The Doctors need to be sure that they don’t go to prison when they follow a properly defined process. As for other organizations. The IHEU is an obvious one. Open society might help. It is something to explore.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?

Helmich: I am wondering why atheism is still a thing. It should be a natural state of being. I sometimes wonder that people can “believe” in atomic theory, but not in evolution. Don’t they realize that our idea of how old the earth is, is based on the rules of atomic decay? 

I personally felt inspired by the sci-fi book “Speaker for the dead”. It felt right that someone told at your funeral the truth and nothing but the truth. And told the audience about your intentions. About how you meant to live your life. That’s an idea that I could connect with.

I understand that “Orson Scott Card” (the writer of the book) changed his views to something much more conservative later, but I value this book. I guess it’s good. I did take the best part of him, but I did not find a new messiah. I guess that’s how it should be.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Jos.

Helmich: PS: Some links you might be interested in. Those on finlandned are columns I wrote some years ago. You can publish them as long as you mention the Author (me) and source (link)

http://finlandned.org/index.php/society/43-dutch-tolerance
http://finlandned.org/index.php/society/23-the-size-of-god

This one is not mine, but interesting:

https://www.humanityinaction.org/knowledgebase/315-the-dutch-myth-of-tolerance

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by Mauro Tandoi on Unsplash

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