Thoughts on Euthanasia

Since the death of Brittany Maynard, who had terminal brain cancer and invoked her right granted by the state of Oregon to die before the loss of her critical faculties, the euthanasia debate has sparked up again around the world.

This spark has yet to become a flame, and just as there are many fanning the smoky tinder, there are those trying desperately to drown it. Deborah Penk is one of the latter, and in a 242 word snarl on stuff.co.nz, she gave her reasons why. Check that out here. Deborah warns that the challenges of writing effective legislative safeguards means that euthanasia will be too easy. She says that the vulnerable of society, the elderly, the disabled, and (bizarrely) those with dysfunctional families, will be disproportionately affected. Deborah goes on to say that countries practicing euthanasia; The Netherlands and Belgium, are slipping down a terrible slope.

Deborah also cries havoc at the prospect of child euthanasia, which she incorrectly asserts is legal in The Netherlands. It is not. A procedure has been created for children who are horribly disfigured and/or terminally ill, but it remains illegal. Near the end of the distressed article is a warning for what legal euthanasia will mean for the non-terminally ill, such as those with depression. To continue with the Dutch example, depression would not warrant euthanasia because it does not satisfy the requirement that: “the patient’s suffering is unbearable with no prospect of improvement.”

A person with clinical depression cannot see any prospect of improvement, even if they have experienced depression many times before. But their doctor can. Therefore a person with depression would not be able to be euthanized by their doctor. While Deborah maintains that the Dutch have little safeguards in place, the practice is actually nothing but safeguards. Euthanasia is still illegal in Holland, but through this procedure the doctors cannot be charged.

I am just taking Deborah’s piece as an example of the opposition, I do not mean to characterise the whole debate in reaction to her. But she is doing something callous, even if it is for righteous reasons. She is trying to shut down the debate. To me that is intellectual cowardice. However, if we do move the matter to the public forum, are we even capable of having the debate?

Death scares most people. It is the genesis of all fear, and the fact that it is the one thing that binds us all does little to mitigate this fear. If we break it down though, and separate dying and death, the former is the more frightening. Being dead is fine, since we won’t know we are dead there is scant reason to worry, but getting dead is a whole different story. It can happen in infinite ways, from the glorious perishing of Lord Nelson at Trafalgar, cut down by a sharpshooter as he watched his greatest victory, to the banal drowning in a bowl of onion soup. It is the last possible experience, it could be terribly painful, or you might miss the whole thing by having a myocardial infarction when you’re fast asleep.

Of all deaths it is Edmond Halley’s (namesake of Halleys Comet) that strikes me as the most suitable. On board a ship at the age of eighty-five in 1742 the great mathematician asked for a glass of wine. He drained it, smiled to himself, and died. Hopefully when ruminating on death without resistance you can let go of some of the fear.

So we have funnelled the fear down to being afraid of certain kinds of dying, namely a squalid death. That is what the death with dignity cabal campaign on, they don’t want their ends to be painful, undignified, or drawn out. Some in this cabal overreach just as much as Deborah Penk, and advocate for such a liberal use of euthanasia so as to remove the element of surprise from the equation. I caution you to not think they all champion their cause quite so enthusiastically, and don’t let it sully the important points of their argument.

Deborah thinks New Zealand should not go down this road altogether, but she misses the point that we have already crossed the threshold. It is called suicide. Solitary, tragic, and incredibly hurtful to loved ones. For those that would qualify for the Dutch version of physician assisted euthanasia, their only recourse is to find a way to end their lives on their own. And they have to be alone. Anyone present can be charged with homicide. This can’t be right. There has to be a way to allow limited euthanasia without falling down the proverbial slippery slope.

To arrive at this happy conclusion we should dispense with any mythologies clung to by advocates and critics. First of all, pain is not unmanageable. If someone is in their last weeks — palliative — and is in terrible pain, strong medications can be administered that relieve the pain without necessarily hastening death. For patients at the palliative stage that time is often crucial, to unite their friends and family, to make important arrangements, to give the dying person dignity. This is where the death with dignity crowd goes astray; death is not the provider of dignity.

On the other side — the one that trades in fear — it is not the case that the elderly and the disabled will be the ones to lose. If one has any experience of families at the bedside of a dying relative (and I confess most of my knowledge here is vicarious) often the family are hostile to attempts to treat the clearly dying person palliatively. They want doctors and nurses to jump on the chest of granny should her breathing falter, no talk of an advance care plan, no consideration as to whether granny wants her ribs broken and her organs bruised by resuscitation. Families such as these need to be managed and communicated with so they can understand through their grief that the dying process is present, unstoppable, and that it would be better to bring out the guitar and tearfully serenade their dear stricken loved one to peace.

Oh dear, I’ve gone past 1000 words and haven’t had a chance to rebut Deborah’s point on the disabled. I’ll have to expand upon that at a later time — if I am spared! No matter, the important points are made and I leave the seeds in your mind, dear reader, to germinate if they may. I think we should have the euthanasia debate, and we can start here if you want to comment. Disagreement is welcome!

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