Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
May 31, 2010
Superficial society keeps euthanasia issue active
Although the right to die with dignity bill did not pass, a climate exists where the aged, frail are devalued
ETHICS MADE REAL
On April 21, a private member's bill to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide in Canada was defeated in the House of Commons by a vote of 228-59.
Undeniably, Bill C-384, An Act to Amend the Criminal Code (right to die with dignity) would have altered the moral landscape of this country. Nearly a year after the bill was introduced by Bloc Québécois MP Francine Lalonde, the issue was finally put to rest through our parliamentary democratic process.
Or was it? Despite the overwhelming majority of elected officials voting against the bill, what can we learn from this experience and expect next?
First, I do not think this question has gone away. Surely someone will take it upon himself or herself to test public readiness again for legalizing euthanasia and assisted death. As I reflect on the rise and fall of this bill, what is it about our society that continues to give this issue a foothold?
Proponents will argue that it is wrong to let people die in pain, and to stand by and do nothing. I agree. Palliative care specialists will point out that controlling pain and symptoms at the end-of-life are achieved in the vast majority of cases.
Fear of an agonizing death is understandable, but it is not an accurate perception. Good ethics must be first grounded in facts, and the reality is that pain and symptom management in our palliative care programs at Covenant Health are effective and responsive to patient needs.
We do not let patients die in agony nor do we hasten death.
So if it is not fear of pain, what about suffering?
I recall an intensive care physician who challenged me when I asked about the tragic circumstances of a patient who attempted suicide: "Is he going to be OK?"
The physician responded, "What do you mean by OK? If you mean, is he going to survive and get through ICU, then yes, he will be OK.
"But if you mean is he going to be OK, given the underlying issues that may have led him to this, in terms of loneliness, abandonment or rejection, then I don't know."
Ethically, we need to get underneath the surface to see the real issues that may leave people, like this patient, with seemingly no other options. In a moment of desperation, some may turn to euthanasia or assisted suicide as a way out, fearing life is too much to bear.
The medical literature reports it is actually patients' fears of being a burden to others, rather than fear of pain and discomfort that prompts requests to end their lives. While skilled medical teams effectively control pain and manage symptoms, admittedly some patients may struggle, indeed, even suffer with, the deeper concern of being burdensome.
YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL
It is no wonder why people should feel this way. A quick glimpse of the advertising world reveals what is valuable in society. Power, vitality and beauty are valued; old age, infirmity and vulnerability are not.
Just pay attention to television or print advertisement, and notice what consumers are asked to buy into. If you are not powerful, beautiful and successful, then do you count?
As baby boomers begin to retire and see a different face in the mirror than what is electronically altered on magazine covers, the questions around burden suddenly become more personal. No wonder euthanasia and assisted suicide lurk in our collective consciousness when the aged, infirm and the disabled increasingly feel they are a burden to others.
From a Catholic perspective, each person possesses an intrinsic dignity and incalculable worth, regardless of their life circumstance. Everybody has value, and while we are dependent upon one another in times of need, we are fundamentally not burdens.
The healing ministry of Jesus is radically counter-cultural, for it challenges those values that callously "vote people off the island." An ethics of compassion and justice calls us to lift people up in their brokenness - not break them. This is what is real and worth fighting for.
While our elected officials have said "no" to euthanasia and assisted suicide, we need to be equally clear and vocal about those moral choices to which Christ calls us to say, "Yes!" I will address this "great yes" in next month's column.
(Gordon Self is vice president, mission, ethics and spirituality for Covenant Health and can be reached at email@example.com.)
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