A Right to Die?
A woman in Holland, suffering from severe PTSD because of childhood sexual abuse is put to death – euthanized – because doctors decide her condition is incurable, in spite of intensive therapy making positive differences in her illness.
In 2014, Belgium became the first country in the world to allow children to request euthanasia.
In the Netherlands, a doctor ended a nun’s life without her consent or knowledge. She suffered from cancer, and he justified his decision on the grounds that her religion prevented her from asking for death.
In Canada, a woman, diagnosed in the early stages of a painful, terminal disease asked for an assisted suicide within weeks of the diagnosis, not because she was suffering intolerable pain, but because she was afraid that as the condition worsened, she would suffer.
In North America, laws against suicide were repealed during the latter half of the 20th century, as secular authorities began to understand that loss of the will to live was a symptom of mental illness and needed treatment, not punishment. As those laws changed, the case for assisted suicide began to be made – that people who suffered from intolerable pain and were close to the ends of their lives should be spared the remaining days or weeks of misery and suffering and be allowed to choose to die with medical help.
It was already done quietly, it was argued, so why punish medical professionals who were only trying to lessen the suffering of one who was dying already? It was an act of mercy and love. It’s understandable. Who wants to suffer or watch someone else suffer unbearably through the last stages of a terminal illness when death is imminent? We want to make it better; we want to make it so that it never happened, and many of us would gladly bear someone else’s pain to spare people we love. So, in less than 30 years, we moved from legalizing suicide to legalizing assisted suicide for those suffering from unbearable physical pain.
Then people argued, what about those who can’t decide for themselves? Why should they be left to suffer because they are unable to make their wishes known or are somehow incapable of making the decision at the time it needs to be implemented? Mercy killing, euthanasia, it was argued, should be legalized so that those who could not make their wishes known could be spared their suffering or those who could not do the job themselves could have it done for them.
For many years, the only criteria allowed was intense physical suffering – pain from disability or illness that was excruciating and unrelenting. But once again, the focus shifted – what about those suffering depression, post traumatic stress disorder, other mental and psychological illnesses that are as hard to bear as the pain of cancer or other diseases?
It’s a hard argument to counter. The heart cries out for those suffering, whether it’s physical, emotional or spiritual pain. We hate seeing people suffer, and it feels unfair, or as if God has deserted those who are in such straits.
But the Fathers are clear, and our own experience tells us that suffering is a part of being fully human. We are going to suffer simply by being alive. And it’s not as if we can’t treat the suffering that people experience.
There is an entire branch of medicine devoted to the management of progressive, terminal and persistent conditions that cause physical and emotional suffering. It’s called palliative care, and it’s proven to be a blessing for both the sufferer and their families, not just by alleviating the pain and making it manageable, but by allowing God into the process and giving gifts of great beauty and immense grace — grace that conveys spiritual and emotional healing to everyone involved in the life and the death of the sufferer.
Great good can come from dealing with sorrow and loss and in coping with disability, good that can bless and sanctify and ennoble everyone involved. Suffering, in the end, is a part of the maturing process – to become fully adult, we need to taste not only of the good, the joyous and the bright, but to experience the pain, the loss and the dark night of the soul and learn that we can survive and thrive regardless of the darkness in and around us.
God has built into us, both as individuals and collectively, a fierce and unyielding will to live. It’s been considered, universally, an act of desperation or outright madness to take one’s own life. Even in societies, like the Japanese, which traditionally have recognized suicide as a legitimate answer to an unsupportable burden, it has been hedged with ritual, mourned and was seen as a last, desperate act resorted to when there simply was no other answer. That is no longer the case.
When a society decides that death is preferable to suffering and that the ability to choose death over life is a “right” to which we should all be entitled, both for ourselves and our loved ones (born or unborn), it brings consequences. There is a slippery slope that begins to “normalize” death and choosing one’s time and place and manner of dying or having it chosen for one.
The history of this issue shows us that first, we agree that suicide as an answer for intolerable physical suffering is acceptable. Then, it’s merciful to extend that to people with mental illnesses – people who are deemed incompetent to manage their own affairs yet somehow are competent to decide that death is better than life. Depression, a mental illness that carries with it a high risk of suicide is now a legitimate cause for suicide or euthanasia. It’s taken us less than 40 years to move from seeing a suicide attempt as a call for help, a symptom of mental illness and an outcome to be avoided at all costs to a legitimate answer to mental illness. The next step is extending that “mercy” to those who can no longer communicate their wishes or desires, those who can’t say “no” when the doctor or the family decide it’s time to die.
In our culture, youth, beauty, health and physical wholeness are so highly valued that we’re taught to believe that those who aren’t young, beautiful and physically whole and healthy are despicable beings who deserve nothing but pity. Overweight, old, or disabled, they are marginalized and treated with contempt and fear.
With our focus on youth, old age is reviled and feared. And yes, old age is not for the weak – it takes courage to face losing one’s sight, one’s hearing, to face losing the clearness of thought and memory. It’s tiring to battle stiffness and pain and increasing illness as the body wears out. It’s terrifying to contemplate or watch someone lose their mind to the various forms of dementia. The wisdom and accumulated history that our elders carry is devalued and ignored in our culture – our old people are invisible and sidelined from the mainstream of public affairs, from inclusion in our larger society. There’s a temptation to put someone out of his or her or our own misery, because, really – how much longer has Granny got, anyway? And it’s such a burden and a worry to care for her. And what about all that money that is just wasting away on her care, anyhow? What began as a “merciful” approach to someone else’s suffering now becomes a greedy grab for more, and if the elderly or the disabled choose not to conform, they are subjected to pressure to get with the program, and just die, already! What used to be respect for the wisdom and accumulated history of the elders becomes impatience and frustration that the elderly won’t just up and die.
Our culture sees disability as unbearable suffering – regardless of whether the sufferer feels that way or not – and regards those with physical and mental challenges with pity and derision. And when there is unbearable suffering, then shouldn’t the sufferer be put out of his or her misery? (Or our misery at witnessing someone who isn’t whole in body and soul?)
We are taught to devalue the life of a disabled person to the extent that medical professionals advocate for an automatic abortion in unborn, disabled children and have been known to counsel caregivers to let disabled people, especially children, die when hospitalized for serious illness, so that the resources can be used on “normal” people.
In some quarters, it’s considered merciful to end the life of a disabled person in the misguided notion that since they aren’t physically whole, physically perfect, they must be suffering, and they’d be better off dead. In Canada in the mid-1990s, a father asphyxiated his disabled daughter because of the pain he thought she suffered. The verdict depended not on whether he’d killed her or not but whether she really was suffering the way her father thought she was. Her mother and her caregivers were able to demonstrate that she wasn’t in the pain, physical or emotional, that dad claimed, and he’s currently serving out his term. The question, however, remains: whose suffering was he truly alleviating? His or his daughter’s? Do we have grounds for killing people because we suffer when we witness their imperfection?
God created every single human being – including people with disabilities. They have a right to live their lives, eking out every molecule of joy they can, living as full a life as they can, contributing to the society in which they live as well as they can, and working out their salvation in fear and trembling just as the rest of us do. The elderly deserve to live out their lives the same way, not in fear of being pressured to end their lives because they’re old and useless and taking up valuable resources, but allowed to work out their salvation until God himself decides it is time to call them home.
A researcher investigating the impact of the right to die laws in the Netherlands in the early 2000s was forced to conclude that the “guidelines established by the Dutch for the practice of assisted suicide and euthanasia were consistently violated and could not be enforced. . . . Half of Dutch doctors feel free to suggest euthanasia to their patients, which compromises the voluntariness of the process. Fifty percent of cases were not reported, which made regulation impossible. The most alarming concern has been the documentation of several thousand cases a year [my emphasis] in which patients who have not given their consent have their lives ended by physicians. A quarter of physicians stated that they ‘terminated the lives of patients without an explicit request’ from the patient. Another third of the physicians could conceive of doing so.” Some, he reported, admitted to euthanizing patients because they needed the beds. This isn’t euthanasia. It is not a compassionate response to the request of someone suffering intolerably. This is murder, pure and simple.
Out of our parents’ actions and from God’s ineffable love and mystery, we are created, body and soul. Every life is precious in God’s eyes, and if we are truly working in fear and trembling toward our salvation, then it needs to be precious in our eyes, too, every human life – regardless of how broken, how twisted, how stunted, how rich, how perfect or how average and boring and pointless it seems to be.
Our lives are a gift from God but they are gifts that we do not own and have no “rights” over. That means we have no freedom to determine our own fates. We do not have the power or the right to determine the times and places of our own deaths. We also, as individuals, do not have the right to determine the times and places of anyone else’s death, even if they ask us to do so.
The “right to die” is wrong. We live in a fallen, broken world, and if the truth were told, even the most perfect of us are as broken, perhaps more broken, than those whose lives we so cavalierly decide aren’t worth living. Who are we to decide when someone is ready to face God and be judged? We can’t even know our own hearts the way God can – how can we possibly presume to know anyone else’s? If our lives, if every life, born or unborn, is a gift from God, then we have no more right to end that life – whether it’s our own or someone else’s – than we have the ability to repeal the laws of thermodynamics.
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