We need to support those who suffer, not stand by as their lives slip away.
While many herald the legalization of euthanasia and physician assisted suicide (PAS) as giving people the option to “die with dignity,” and as offering “compassion and choices” in the wake of terminal illness, both euthanasia and PAS remain highly controversial—and for good reason. Ultimately though, I believe that euthanasia and PAS are a perversion of true mercy and compassion, a failure of love and Christian charity, and antithetical to the ethical practice of medicine.
In the U.S., support for PAS—currently, under strict conditions of eligibility—is growing. In Europe, Belgium and the Netherlands have led the way in implementing ever more lenient eligibility criteria for euthanasia. Euthanasia and PAS supporters all over the world herald these more lenient standards as being merciful towards the dying, and claim that increasingly lenient eligibility criteria expand that mercy for more individuals. In truth, I feel strongly that these laws are actually a perversion of mercy, and a failure of love for the most vulnerable among us. They also dangerously twist the virtues that have guided the profession of medicine since its very beginning.
A common requirement for most PAS and euthanasia laws worldwide is that to be eligible for either intervention, a patient must be an adult, suffering, and facing imminent death; only then may she self-administer a physician-prescribed, lethal injection or drug (PAS), or have a physician directly administer the death-causing agent (euthanasia). Since 2002, the Netherlands has offered legal euthanasia for Dutch patients who are not only imminently dying, but also for those with non-terminal conditions who are experiencing “unbearable suffering with no prospect for improvement.”
As a result of this arguably subjective criteria, Dutch physicians recently euthanized an otherwise healthy man suffering from chronic alcoholism; 41-year-old Mark Langedijk had been in treatment for the disease for eight years, with 21 stints in rehab. Finding his life unbearable, and citing the many rounds of failed treatment for his alcoholism, Mark requested euthanasia from his physicians, and they acquiesced.
But Mark’s is not the only tragic story highlighting the controversial nature of the country’s more lenient eligibility criteria for euthanasia. Recently, Dutch physicians euthanized a young woman in her 20s, who, after years of sexual abuse, developed severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among other psychological and psychiatric conditions related to the abuse. And stories like Mark’s and this young woman’s are slowly becoming more common.
|To call death ‘easy’ belittles the experiences of our suffering brothers and sisters.”|
But what upsets me most is that recently the Netherlands also allowed children aged 12 and older to request euthanasia. Dutch children must have parental consent for euthanasia until they reach age 16, after which age parental consent is no longer required. And two years ago, Belgium took this law one step further. Belgium no longer has an age requirement for euthanasia, and in 2014, became the only country to allow minors under 18 years of age who are suffering from “great pain” to request euthanasia. These children must have parental consent, but they need not be dying to be euthanized; however, there must not be any treatment available for their condition. As a result of the new eligibility criteria, a terminally-ill 17-year-old suffering an incurable condition recently requested and received euthanasia.
All of these stories are tragic, and it is evident that each one of these individuals was suffering when they requested to die at the hands of their doctors. After all, who among us would choose to live with an unrelenting disease like alcoholism, which can tear apart the very fabric of our families and friendships? And who would want to live with the torment of heinous sexual abuse, lurking like a shadow over our hearts and minds, and perhaps darkening our every relationship with the opposite sex?
Too often, those requesting PAS and euthanasia are criticized as “taking the easy way out;” the truth is, neither life nor death is easy for someone suffering so tremendously, and to call death “easy” belittles the experiences of our suffering brothers and sisters. But what Mark Langedijk and others like him need is not to be killed, but to be loved, and shown true mercy and compassion by their family, friends, and healthcare providers.
|Offering death instead of treatment does not actually eliminate the patient’s suffering, rather, it eliminates a suffering human being.”|
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the “works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities.” Our brothers and sisters suffering from ill health—be it mental, physical, or both—are in desperate need of a true mercy that works arduously to relieve their pain without denying their inherent dignity or refusing the gift of life, which comes from the One who is the Master of life. In offering death instead of treatment or adequate pain-management, the family, friends, and healthcare providers of patients do not actually eliminate the patient’s suffering—as another writer recently put it—but rather, “they eliminate a suffering human being.”
Pope Francis has spoken out in particular against the growing support for PAS and euthanasia, seeing it as further evidence of a “throwaway culture” that devalues the weakest and most marginalized in our society. He specifically calls out the false message that euthanasia and PAS are merciful or compassionate actions; as the Pope points out, “compassion” comes from the Latin word “compati,” meaning to “suffer with.” To eliminate the suffering person is therefore a failure of true compassion, which demands that we walk with those who are suffering until the end, rather than aiding them in an early death. When we refuse our suffering brothers and sisters true mercy and compassion (which seeks to walk with them in love until the end of their journey on this earth) we do them a grave disservice, and fail in our Christian call of charity towards the sick and vulnerable.
Euthanasia and PAS not only prevent us from properly loving those who suffer, but they often also interfere with the virtuous practice of medicine. The four principles which are generally used in the field of bioethics to guide the ethical practice of medicine—autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice—are often bent or ignored by those who support euthanasia and PAS. How can one claim to be honoring the principle of autonomy (as many PAS advocates do) when the very intervention offered will forever end a patient’s autonomous actions? And to willfully cause the death of another seems to be in direct conflict with upholding the principles of beneficence (“always do good”) and non-maleficence (“do no harm”). Euthanasia and PAS are also an assault on the principle of justice, especially when one considers the significant vulnerability of those suffering terminal illnesses, and the pressure these individuals may feel to end their lives if these practices become more widely sanctioned.
|Euthanasia is already proving to be a slippery slope down which countries and states may all too easily slide.”|
For all of these reasons—religious and ethical—the ever-increasing leniency in eligibility criteria for accessing PAS and euthanasia in the Netherlands and Belgium should give PAS promoters in the United States pause. The Netherlands is now actually considering euthanasia for anyone who “feels their life is complete” in addition to those who are sick or suffering, which could put the vulnerable elderly—especially those who may feel forgotten or like a burden to their families—at significant risk. For now, the PAS movement in the US has centered around suffering, terminally-ill individuals, but as long as the focus remains on eliminating suffering at all costs—even to the point of death—the evolution of policies eliminating the terminality requirement, then age requirements, and so on and so forth, is already proving to be a slippery slope down which countries and states may all too easily slide.
If we want our healthcare systems to become better at meeting the needs of the suffering, to become more just, comforting, and truly merciful, we must show true love in practicing medicine and supporting our suffering brothers and sisters—to allow nothing to prevent us from “putting more heart into our hands” and practicing true compassion as Pope Francis has called us to do.
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