I am just returned from a few days stay in hospital for a relatively minor procedure. I arrived at the break of dawn on Wednesday and was ushered through two operating theatre visits and an imaging session, all in a matter of hours. In at 6 AM, back to my room by 5:30 PM, two nights in residence, and home all done in a little more than 48 hours. The Doctors and Nurses at Credit Valley Hospital warrant kudos on all fronts, so a public thank you to them. Believe it or not, through all of this, I had lots of time to observe, reflect, wonder and marvel, for it is seldom I find myself confined to such passivity for so long while still relatively conscious. There is so much the system can do to keep us all going, it is really quite impressive. Nevertheless I still wonder how long can we afford all of this, should we continue spending so much ushering us “boomers” to our next stop, and at what cost to the broader community , to education, to social services, and all the other ‘ethical goods’ [imperatives] that demand our attention? I think the time has come for an open and honest discussion, and I know it will not be easy. Oh yes, it will exist in academic circles, in some organs of the press, and in various commissions and studies, but will it ever get down to you and me
The would be governors of all thought and action: the Lawyers, the Clerics and the Politicians will forever cling to the status quo. You can hear them already, if you dare to open this door, the floodgates will surely open. Hitler and Stalin will be resurrected, and Frankenstein remembered. The clerics love moral absolutes, and so get ready to hear them all come out in force. All life is gift of God, and only God can decide when we arrive and when we leave. I suppose that means all of our children just happened along, and good Christian Medics never argued the philosophical principle of “double effect’. Let’s just keep Daddy comfortable, knowing as we do that that much pain killer will hurry him along. Suffering is not the great of evils, they will proclaim, it is also redemptive. It is how Christ wrought our salvation. Who are we to be different, perhaps our redemption demands that we too suffer. And yet if we reflect, we all see that these absolutes [thou shalt not kill inter alia] are not so absolute: justified homicide, stand your ground laws, so called just wars, and of course capital punishment. are tolerated. If you think carefully you can examine all the other so called imperatives with similar results. What’s up with religion and science. I happen to believe in both. Have the clerical or legal classes ever shut down medical experimentation? Who determines the boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not? History in this area tends to point out that the legal, clerical and political establishments say no to everything in the beginning, just as a matter of course. Believe me, I do not write to offend any of you. I too believe that life is a gift of God, and I too am aware of the excesses we have lived through in the past two hundred years. Neither have I taken out membership in the Hemlock Society. I just think it is time to think again about a good death, look up the definition of euthanasia.
Allow me to share my mental meanderings, and try not to condemn me to hell in advance. I think there are many ethical goods which God calls us to live out in our lives. I also know that sometimes such ‘goods’ compete with one another. This prompts me to pose the following question to myself. Should the community of which I am a member spend unrestrictedly to keep me alive even unto the detriment of the well-being of the larger community? A few years back a successful Newfoundlander friend of mine living and working in Toronto came down with a virulent cancer. To keep himself alive, he spent many millions of dollars at Sloan Kettering in New York and at various medical experimental stations around the world looking for a cure. In the end he died and left his widow with almost nothing, a situation made all the worse because his life insurance company found a way to avoid even paying his life policy. Now I am old and humble enough not to condemn my friend, but I could not do what he did because I think it is morally wrong. Remember I am still Catholic and Christina, and I do not believe death is the greatest evil to be avoided at all costs. I believe it is but a gateway, and I believe in an afterlife. But even if I did not, I still think such behaviour not morally optimal.
Let’s take all of this a step further. What about spending an inordinate amount of time and community resources on keeping someone long lost to dementia but physically breathing? Community resources are not endless or inexhaustible. If we give to this, we take from that. My good friend and Jesuit Priest Dan Phaelan had a stroke at 55 and was kept alive on a machine for 5 years, long after his brain activity was barely discernible because the law and the church would not allow the plug to be pulled. I have problems with that sort of thing. I don’t have answers, I have problems. Unlike what many of us were taught, moral positions and moral absolutes like all human knowledge do develop and at times evolve. Its past time to get these things on the table and for ordinary folks to weigh in and be made to think.
My rant today was prompted by my hospital visit, and so I now share what I was thinking about while they rooted around for those kidney stones. I could not help but notice the man in the room across the hall from me as his distress was beyond loud. I later learned that he was in the final stages of lung cancer, and had also been suffering from dementia for about 10 years. One of his sons came into my room uninvited, and spoke to me for about half an hour. I do hope I was sufficiently compassionate, not always easy when you have tubes coming out of every orifice . I initially felt intruded upon, but I softened, and our conversation made me reflect on the impact on this family of these diseases, and what the past ten years must have been like for all of them. Looking over into my neighbour room I also thought about how much all this must cost. He does not know who he is or who we are, the son said with just a hunt of a tear , and that prompted ever more questions about why we continue to do it this way? I am also wise enough to continue thinking past the emotional impact of hearing a man die. Returning home I decided to finally read an article written by a most interesting woman, [see the link above] an article I had put aside for consideration some time back after I had read an article about the author in the Globe and Mail. I do not hold myself out as an evangelist for her position, but I think we must revisit the issue. To ignore it would be morally indefensible and dumb. For the sake of balance I have also included the current RC view as articulated by the US bishops.
TRADITIONAL RC MORAL POSITION
On September 12, 1991, a statement was released by the Administrative Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the statement centered on euthanasia. Since this statement is addressed both to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, I would like to reproduce it here. As it calls us to reject euthanasia, may it give us much food for thought. Here is how the letter begins:
“Current efforts to legalize euthanasia place our society at a critical juncture. These efforts have received growing public attention, due to new publications giving advice on methods of suicide and some highly publicized instances in which family members or physicians killed terminally ill persons or helped them kill themselves.”
“Proposals such as those in the Pacific Northwest, spearheaded by the Hemlock Society, aim to change state laws against homicide and assisted suicide to allow physicians to provide drug overdoses or lethal injections to their terminally ill patients.”
“Those who advocate euthanasia have capitalized on people’s confusion, ambivalence, and even fear about the use of modern life-prolonging technologies. Further, borrowing language from the abortion debate, they insist that the “right to choose” must prevail over all other considerations. Being able to choose the time and manner of one’s death, without regard to what is chosen, is presented as the ultimate freedom. A decision to take one’s life or to allow a physician to kill a suffering patient, however, is very different from a decision to refuse extraordinary or disproportionately burdensome treatment.
“As Catholic leaders and moral teachers, we believe that life is the most basic gift of a loving God – a gift over which we have stewardship but not absolute dominion.”
“Our tradition, declaring a moral obligation to care for our own life and health and to seek such care from others, recognizes that we are not morally obligated to use all available medical procedures in every set of circumstances. But that tradition clearly and strongly affirms that as a responsible steward of life one must never directly intend to cause one’s own death, or the death of an innocent victim, by action or omission. As the Second Vatican Council declared, “Euthanasia and willful suicide” are “offenses against life itself” which “poison civilization”; they “debase the perpetrators more than the victims and militate against the honor of the Creator” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, No. 27).”
“As the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has said, “Nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, or and old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying.” Moreover, we have no right “to ask for this act of killing” for ourselves or for those entrusted to our care; “nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action.” We are dealing here with a “violation of person, a crime against life, and an attack on humanity” (Declaration on Euthanasia,” 1980).”
“Legalizing euthanasia would also violate American convictions about human rights and equality. The Declaration of Independence proclaims our inalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” If our right to life itself is diminished in value, our other rights will have no meaning. To destroy the boundary between healing and killing would mark a radical departure from long-standing legal and medical traditions of our country, posing a threat of unforeseeable magnitude to vulnerable members of our society. Those who represent the interests of elderly citizens, persons with disabilities and persons with AIDS or other terminal illnesses are justifiably alarmed when some hasten to confer on them the “freedom” to be killed.
“We call on Catholics, and on all persons of good will, to reject proposals to legalize euthanasia. We urge families to discuss issues surrounding the care of terminally ill loved ones in light of sound moral principles and the demands of human dignity, so that patients need not feel helpless or abandoned in the face of complex decisions about their future. And we urge health care professionals, legislators and all involved in this debate to seek solutions to the problems of terminally ill patients and their families that respect the inherent worth of all human beings, especially those most in need of our love and assistance.”