I think one of the difficulties of discussing life issues is that the battle resembles trench warfare. Both sides dig in. Both sides hurl the same kinds of “bombs” against each other. Those who favor euthanasia, for example, often cite the “tremendous suffering” experienced by some who want to end their lives. Those who oppose euthanasia cite the dignity of the human person and that the taking of life should be reserved to the Author of Life, that is, God.
What I would like to do here in this blog is to cite some additional observations that I think may escape some of those who are in the heat of battle regarding this issue. Yes, of course, as a believing Catholic I am on the side of life and I oppose euthanasia. And so let me give some “additional” points I hope might help in dialogues with the opposition.
First, let’s talk about physical suffering.
We live in a day and age where we have more substances to relieve physical pain than at any time in the past. Think about it. In the Civil War, for example, men who were wounded in battle often had to have limbs amputated in a field tent without the benefit of anesthesia of any kind. I also remember reading an account of an Egyptian pharaoh, whose name honestly escapes me, but whose remains indicated to archeologists that he had lived a good part of his life as a dental cripple. His teeth were in such poor shape that the pain would have practically incapacitated him.
Yet I don’t recall reading accounts from the past of people killing themselves due to pain. Perhaps it happened, but if it did it was certainly not a widespread practice. Suicide in the ancient past, i.e. Rome, for example, was an act that was performed when one lost honor or status. The same was true in the Japanese Samurai culture. People didn’t kill themselves because they “hurt” too much. They killed themselves because they did not feel that they had a life worth continuing. That of course is not a good decision either, but it was a bad practice which was reserved to the elite of the society and did not have to do with the reasons supporting today’s push for euthanasia.
So now, in a time and an age where we have medicines to ease pain more than at any time, people are choosing to kill themselves to avoid physical pain.
And now let’s address psychological pain and suffering.
I remember not only reading but also listening to mental health professionals during my lifetime, professionals who came from different cultures and faith backgrounds (some indeed without faith), who all agreed that a person’s decision to commit suicide was not a rational act and in fact indicated a compromise of mental health. Why would this be so? Because the decision to kill one’s self contradicts one of the most basic instincts of humanity, that of self-preservation, of survival.
The argument, then, that people suffering from psychological suffering should be allowed to decide to end their lives is on shaky ground. We’re talking about someone who may not be entirely rational. Desire for suicide indicates instability. So placing this kind of decision in the hands of a person who may be mentally and/or emotionally compromised is a foolish idea. The suffering may be intense, indeed, but there may be a way out. We don’t simply tell people you are unhappy/depressed/mad, so just do yourself and everyone else a favor and take yourself out.
And now there is a further question to consider.
Let’s suppose for the sake of this argument that we are all on the other side. We favor euthanasia. We want it to be made available to persons who are “suffering”.
Well, “suffering” is a pretty wide-open term. What level of suffering? How do we determine that? Do we reserve this only for persons who are in constant and excruciating physical pain? Do we verify that any and all measures to curb that pain have been exhausted? Or do we allow the person to decide for him or herself?
If the latter were to be the case, if suffering were something decided by the individual and the individual alone, a person could literally stub his toe and decide that that pain was too much to bear. And he would have the right to take his own life.
To this point, we’ve centered on the individual suffering either physical or psychological pain. We need to broaden the scope a bit. A person’s death, whether by suicide or not, has an impact on others. So let’s look at this a little bit.
A young woman is depressed. She can’t find a job. Her husband has left her and taken all the family funds. She’s recently been ill. She decides that she just needs to end it all.
But she has two young children. Their father has recently left them. Now their mother wants to leave them as well.
Do we consider the impact of this woman’s decision on anyone other than herself? After all, she is suffering and she wants to end her life. If euthanasia is something which should be equally available to all, should she have the right to act to end her life in view of the fact she has two children depending on her?
Regardless of your answer to this, the point here is that euthanasia is a debate which happens in an academic kind of arena. “Principles” of freedom are argued, but what needs to be understood is the awful impact such a decision can have on others. We aren’t islands. People aren’t academic theses. They are persons.
And if we open up the gate to allow this practice we will have to be prepared to deal with these kinds of situations. Of course, no one can stop the mother I mentioned above from cutting her wrists, taking poison, or taking a gun and blowing her brains out. But do we need to make this legal and endorsed and help her make such a decision?
And finally, we need to consider one additional matter which can creep in and compromise the situation of a patient considering whether he or she should live or die.
Show of hands (never mind that this is a blog and I can’t see who holds his or her hand up): how many of you have ever watched a murder mystery on television or in a movie theater? How many have watched an episode of NBC’s “Dateline”? How many have read a book, story, or article about murder?
There have been countless murders done over inheritance. Grandma’s rich. Let’s make it look like an accident and collect her money before she uses it all up on extended care. Now, with euthanasia, we don’t need the accident. We’ll just convince some medical professional that she wants to die and that’s the end of it (and her).
Think that would not happen? In places like Belgium and Holland, where euthanasia is not only legal but encouraged, I’d be willing to bet money that it has. And in those countries the euthanizing of newborns that have challenges is also encouraged. So those societies are moving beyond abortion to infanticide and it is being encouraged.
And one last matter: Your assignment is to watch one of the old Frankenstein movies. Remember the premise that the doctor creates a creature over which he very rapidly loses control. The very people who propose euthanasia may end up being its victims against their own will.