Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Why Euthanasia? Why Now?

Margaret Sommerville, director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill Universityhas an interesting piece in the Ottawa Citizen today on "Why we're debating euthanasia now" with the tag line: "Deep changes in society have created a growing demand for the legalization of euthanasia -- but that doesn't make it right." She begins:

"Why is Canada's Parliament now considering a bill to legalize euthanasia (a term I use here to include assisted suicide), when we have prohibited it for millennia?

Not one of the bottom-line conditions usually linked with calls for legalizing euthanasia -- that a person is terminally ill, wants to die and we can kill them -- is new. These factors have been part of the human condition for as long as humans have existed. And our capacity to relieve pain and suffering has improved remarkably. So, is some other cause the main one?

She proceeds to give a laundry list of reasons why euthanasia is being debated now. First on the list is the obvious one: Enlightenment ideas of autonomy and extreme individualism.

Second, she mentions the loneliness of dying people due to the medicalization of death:
"In our society, death is largely medical event that takes place in a
hospital or other institution and is perceived as occurring in great isolation.
It's been institutionalized, depersonalized and dehumanized. Asking for
euthanasia can be a response to the "intense pre-mortem loneliness" of the dying
person that results."

Third, she mentions the way the mass media hypes isolated stories of individuals demanding death, which creates the illusion that this is what "everybody" wants.

Fourth, she talks about the "death talk" in our society and the fear that it generates:
"Our extensive discussion of euthanasia in the mass media may be our contemporary "death talk." So, instead of being confined to an identifiable location and an hour or so a week, "death talk" has spilled out into our lives in general. This makes maintaining the denial of death more difficult, because it makes the fear of death more present and "real." One way to deal with this fear is to believe we have death under control. The availability of euthanasia could support that belief. Euthanasia moves us from chance to choice concerning death. Although we cannot make death optional, we can create an illusion that it is, by making its timing and the conditions and ways in which it occurs a matter of choice."

I think she is really on to something here. As fewer and fewer people believe in Christianity, the natural fear of death is not dealt with through Christian hope and so people grasp at straws of control. We can at least pretend to believe that we can control what we choose.

Fifth, she mentions the legalism that characterizes our society as a result of a loss of face to face contact with family and friends and the fact that most interactions now occur between strangers. She also discusses the role of legal positivism, which implies the loss of belief in natural and divine law.

Sixth, she points out that materialism and consumerism end up getting applied even to human beings themselves. In a "throw away" society, even people are disposable.

Seventh, she says that the loss of a sense of mystery leads to a loss of hope: "We convert mysteries into problems in order to deal with them and reduce our anxiety in doing so."

Eighth, she points to the loss of the sense of what it means to be human and the loss of an ability to articulate a difference between animals and people.

Nineth, she mentions the false opposition of religion to science and the use of science to reduce the confidence of the average person in religion. This leads to a passivity - almost a kind of fatalism - in the face of new and dehumanizing technologies.

Tenth, she talks about competing worldviews. She writes:
"Though immensely important in itself, the debate over euthanasia might be a surrogate for yet another, even deeper, one. Which of two irreconcilable worldviews will form the basis of our societal and cultural paradigm?

According to one worldview, we are highly complex, biological machines, whose most valuable features are our rational, logical, cognitive functions. This worldview is in itself a mechanistic approach to human life. Its proponents support euthanasia as being, in appropriate circumstances, a logical and rational response to problems at the end of life.

The other worldview (which for some people is expressed through religion, but can be, and possibly is for most people, held independently of religion, at least in a traditional or institutional sense) is that human life consists of more than its biological component, wondrous as that is. It involves a mystery of which we have a sense through intuitions, especially moral ones. It sees death as part of the mystery of life, which means that to respect life, we must respect death. Although we might be under no obligation to prolong the lives of dying people, we do have an obligation not to shorten their lives deliberately."

Overall, this is a good article, from which several conclusions can, I think, be drawn.

1. Although she never uses the term, her article is a good description of the culture of death. It shows how the death wish is deeply woven into the fabric of our society, rather than being an aberation.

2. If she is even half right, the propsects for stopping the legalization of euthanasia are slim. The culture of death keeps marching along and the only way it can be stopped is if it is replaced by a new culture of life stemming from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

3. The fact that the illusion of choice is fundamental to modern liberalism and that it leads to death is made plain by this article. We need to pray for the conversion of Canada to Christian faith because the alternative is frightening and dehumanizing.

1 comment:

David said...

There does seem to be a depressing inevitability regarding euthanasia in Western countries, and I think that what you and Margaret Sommerville have written is spot on. Despite this the culture of death is being held back for a while at least in the UK. See this article on yet another attempt to make euthanasia legal defeated by the House of Lords: