Although euthanasia, or assisted dying, is something I’ve done a decent amount of reading on lately, I haven’t talked about it much on this blog. Like many issues I wish to write about, I sometimes get lost in not knowing where to start. So I’ve decided to start with a summary of my thoughts on the subject, including some background on how I got here.
My basic view is that the decision to end’s one life when one has decided that life is no longer worth living, perhaps due to immense suffering or limitation, is perfectly reasonable – a decision which should be respected. I also believe that it is quite reasonable to assist someone in ending their life quickly and painlessly if that is their wish, and if they cannot do it on their own.
These opinions of mine are relatively recent. I recall reading an article for a psychology class six years ago about an elderly couple with failing health, who decided to commit suicide due to low quality of life. When our professor asked the class what we thought about the couple’s decision, I responded that I thought it was a bad one. I argued that people shouldn’t commit suicide no matter how bad life gets, because there was always something good that could happen to them that would make life worth continuing.
This was a very christian response. I had given up calling myself a christian by this point, but I still retained many of the common christian insecurities, including those about death. Now, I do not find any wisdom in the prescription that one should endure arbitrary levels of misery for the sole purpose that, eventually, “something good” might happen that would make the misery seem less so. Happiness should not be like winning the lottery – a chance event that happens seldom if at all. Happiness is either attainable given one’s current physical state, or it isn’t, and if it isn’t, it’s reasonable to seek an end to one’s suffering.
Though I became less christian in the years since, and eventually became an atheist about two and a half years ago, it took some time before I was completely comfortable with the idea of ending one’s life voluntarily. I believe it was only a year and a few months ago, when I watched Terry Pratchett’s eloquent and persuasive lecture on assisted dying, that I was won over to the side on which I now stand. (Pratchett’s lecture really is a great one, and I recommend you watch it if you can.)
In the months since, I have learned a great deal about the arguments for assisted dying, what life is like for those who seek it, and what the religious opposition to it consists of (for the opposition to it is almost always religious). A blog called Choice in Dying has been a major source of education for me. Its author, Eric MacDonald, is an anglican priest-cum-atheist whose wife chose to end her life at Dignitas in Switzerland, due to the suffering she experienced from an aggressive case of multiple sclerosis. One could say that Eric is uniquely positioned to write with perspective and conviction on this issue.
For me, the matter is simply settled by reading accounts of those who are suffering, and who wish to suffer no longer. I cannot read such an account and think “this person is wrong to want this,” or worse, “they must be made to stay in this prison of flesh until their body gives out entirely.”
Listen, for example, to Eric describe his wife’s condition:
My wife Elizabeth, who had a fairly aggressive case of MS, knew, from consultation with her family physician, and her neurologist, that there was simply no more that scientific medicine could do. The likely trajectory of her disease, which had already rendered her seriously disabled (her body below her arms completely paralysed and spastic), and was threatening to disable her even more, would probably end up causing her not only complete paralysis, but complete paralysis with continuing painful spasticity. A drug which had helped with spasticity had already precipitated total liver dysfunction, which almost killed her, and there was nothing else that would relieve the pain of uncontrolled spasticity in her legs which, a few times, had thrown her completely out of her bed. Large doses of morphine helped a little, but had complicating side effects. She needed nursing care twice a week, because, having no bowel control, she had to be “toiletted” by public health nurses, and she was permanently catheterised, the catheter being changed every month or so. She could not walk or transfer herself to her wheelchair, since her arms were beginning to grow numb. She had to spend most of her time in bed, being turned from one side to the other to avoid bed sores. Even at night she had to be turned every two hours; she could not do this herself. The pain made it difficult to concentrate so, towards the end, she was no longer able to read with attention. And there are many other things that I could tell you about her condition, which was, to her, a source of deep existential anxiety.
The description that follows of Elizabeth’s strength and resolve in the face of her condition is well worth reading. It is a discussion of death, which Eric so poignantly relates, that makes me feel like I’ve learned something more about life.
But I was making a point with this – I cannot see why any person, of sound mind but such terribly unsound body, should be forced to live under these conditions if they have decided that it is not worth it. It is one thing to wish not to be involved in the death of another, but to oppose it unilaterally, or legislate against it so that no one may assist in it, seems like nothing other than cruelty.
As I mentioned above, opposition to assisted dying is almost entirely religious. The theist is bound to the idea that God has put us on this earth for a reason, and so we must stay here, and suffer through anything in order to, essentially, do his bidding. Granted, if one doesn’t think about it too hard, the idea that we are each given a mission from God can be a cozy one, while we are hale. But when we are sick – when we cannot move on our own, or control our bowels, or experience a day without the agony of constant pain – the question becomes what could possibly be the value in making me suffer so?
“There is value in it,” we are assured. There is value in it to God, even if there is no value in it to us. And despite the fact that many humans cannot easily stomach the sight of another’s suffering, we are taught that our God can stomach it. In fact, he commands it.
Religious opposition is the reason assisted dying is illegal in many places, despite the fact that the places that have tried it have found concerns about such legislation being used the wrong way to be completely unfounded.
Last week, The Ottowa Citizen ran a feature in which they asked various religious experts for their faith’s views on euthanasia. Not a single religious authority was willing to come out in support of assisted dying; the majority asserted that it would be wrong to end one’s life voluntarily, no matter what. And they also believe it is right to enforce this belief on everyone.
One anglican priest in the article quoted something the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote back in 2005:
For a believer to say: ‘The time could come when I find myself in a situation that has no meaning, and I reserve the right to end my life in such a situation,’ would be to say that there is some aspect of human life where God cannot break through. It would be to say that when I as an individual can no longer give meaning to my life, it has no value, and human dignity is best served by ending it…
Why yes, that is exactly the point. This is what is so wrong with the religious view – the idea that our lives are not ours, and that meaning is given to us by someone else. What value could there be in a god mandating for us the reason for which we are to live? While a god certainly would have the power to do such a thing, it is an odious thing to actually do it. And since there almost certainly is no god, it is all the more true to say that each and every one of us decides what life is for us, what meaning it has. We decide whether life has value, not someone else. And if life no longer has value, human dignity is best served by ending it. The Archbishop understands the humanist position completely – he is just completely wrong about it.
The article does, at least, quote one rational individual – Kevin Smith, who is on the board of directors for the Canadian Centre for Inquiry. Smith makes all the right points, saying that in a secular society, “euthanasia must be a personal decision between the terminally ill and their families,” and that it is “ethically criminal” to guilt people with threats of supernatural damnation.
If only more people agreed.
This is an ongoing issue, and I’m happy to stand on the side that values human life over suffering, and respects people enough to allow them to choose what life means to them.