Monday, March 8, 2010

Mercy-killing and the right to die

I was going through some articles I had saved, and found one that has profound importance for the debate on assisted-suicide and mercy-killing. This area is very difficult to spend time with, because death itself is not a nice topic, and also because the moral/ ethical issues are complex. But attend to the issue we should, because it is coming to a hospital bed near you sooner or later. The bed could be your parent’s, your child’s – or your own.

The article I saved was from the Catholic Register, February 21, 2010, in which Sr. Nuala Kenny (whom I had the pleasure of meeting when she worked in Kingston some years ago) reported on a study she had done on assisted suicide requests. She found that “There is no significant association between the desire for hastened death and either the presence of pain or pain intensity.” Rather, depression and hopelessness contribute to a feeling that life is not worth living any more, a condition Sr. Kenny refers to as ‘existential suffering.’ Doctors have difficulty addressing this. In fact, in patients treated for depression, “requests for death are withdrawn.” The moral appears to be that we should look for the reason for the request, since we may be able to help.

All this reminds me of the mercy-killing debate that has raged around the world for many decades, calling into question the value of life itself. Proponents of mercy-killing have as their premise that not all lives have equal value. Related to that is the assumption that no-one could possibly want to live as a handicapped person. I recall reading articles by Dr. C. Everett Koop who was a paediatrician in the U. S., and who went to become Surgeon-General in the Reagan administration. Dr. Koop pointed out the fallacy and arrogance of that assumption. Here is one of his quotes:

It has been my constant experience that disability and unhappiness do not necessarily go together. ……. Some of the most unhappy children whom I have known have all of their physical and mental faculties, and on the other hand some of the happiest youngsters have borne burdens which I myself would find very difficult to bear. Our obligation in such circumstances is to find alternatives for the problems our patients face. I don't consider death an acceptable alternative. With our technology and creativity, we are merely at the beginning of what we can do educationally and in the field of leisure activities for such youngsters. And who knows what happiness is for another person?

The debate on assisted suicide and euthanasia is not going to go away. On the contrary it is heating up. In Canada Bloc Quebecois MP Francine Lalonde has tried repeatedly, and will keep trying, to get Parliament to pass a bill that would legalise assisted suicide and euthanasia. I would urge you to follow the debate by tuning into Alex Schadenberg’s website.

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