"It’s our own distress that we can’t abide, not that of the dying."
I went to my Uncle Valentino’s funeral the other day. He died just a couple weeks short of his 88th birthday, leaving a wife to whom he’d been married for 67 years, two daughters, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and the legacy of a generous life well-lived.
After several months of painful struggle and with amputation of both feet looming — which he’d steadfastly refused — Valentino fell finally into a deep, peaceful sleep and didn’t wake up. His family had never left his side, not only because the gravely ill need the constant presence of an advocate when hospitalized but also because they did not want to miss a single treasured hour of a life draining away.
Despite the suffering, not once to my knowledge did Uncle Val ever express a wish to depart this earth, to hurry up his leave-taking because the pain of living had become too great.
I like to think that Valentino willed himself to die, in the end. He was done. And this is the only form of self-extinction I can morally abide.
My own father, through half a year of hospitalization and multiple surgeries, was in unbearable agony in his final weeks of consciousness. He screamed from the pain and I screamed watching it. But when he begged to make it stop, he didn’t mean “end my life.” And it never crossed my mind to think, “Kill off this man as an act of kindness.”
What I wanted to do was kill the medical men and women around him who were failing so monstrously to alleviate his pain. My father did not need assisted suicide. He needed assistance to manage end-of-life traumas that assaulted his body.
We are all so desperately afraid of pain and burdening those we love. We are increasingly adopting the euphemistic vocabulary of assisted-suicide as if phrases like “dying with dignity” mean anything in the real world, drawing outrageous comparisons to animals put down as a mercy that should be extended to human beings. In fact, we destroy our aged and ill pets to extinguish our own distress, the messiness of tending to a needy creature.
I do not kill my animals. I’ve lain down with them, held them, waited for dogs and cats to draw their last breath.
We are not animals, though that might be a moral improvement.
It is repugnant that we are now discussing doing away with the elderly, the diseased, the terminally ill, those whose “quality of life” — a dreadful expression — has been deemed unendurable.
We forget what every other generation before this one has understood in its bones: That dying, with all its miseries, is a part of living; that we do not and should not get to choose the moment of our death any more than we chose the moment of our birth; and that those who exist in the shadowy realm between life and death are in a state of grace, which is the gift they give us — to witness and feel this existential dimension, this passage. It is a spiritualism few of us would otherwise experience and it matters not if you’re a person of faith or an atheist.
I am dismayed about where this assisted suicide public debate will lead us as a society, with Quebec already tabling legislation that would allow physicians to hasten death and British Columbia earlier striking down the Criminal Code provision against euthanasia, a decision now under appeal.
The public’s apparent eagerness to embrace the ethically profane is being driven by a generation of Baby Boomers who, throughout their lives, have become accustomed to setting the moral template by which everybody else must abide. Now, as they slouch towards twilight, the dying of the light, they don’t want it to hurt. I wonder about their frail and dependent parents, those who are still alive, and what they must think about the escalating tenor of their expendability.
How foolish to believe that we can or even should dictate to death or, worse, that dying amidst excruciating pain, as our faculties disappear, as we become more helpless than babies, is somehow an undignified end. It is merely the nature of things, sometimes, and it’s nature that the assisted suicide promoters wish to defy.
Do not for one minute pretend that that this is anything other than a slippery slope towards the annihilation of human beings who tax our willingness to cope with the disabled, the deformed, the grievously ill. It’s our own distress that we can’t abide, not theirs.
In Belgium, which 11 years ago became the second country in the world to legalize euthanasia for adults, 2 per cent of deaths annually occur in this manner. Now Belgian politicians are debating an amendment to the law that would make it the first country to legalize euthanasia of children of any age in cases of “unbearable and irreversible” suffering. Unbearable to whom? Palliative sedation is available for these youngsters but some parents want a quicker and “merciful” end. These are not youngsters who can express their own wishes.
In the Netherlands, children between the ages of 12 and 16 can already request euthanasia, with a parent’s permission.
In Canada we have doctors with a God-complex fighting for the legal right to decide when life-sustaining treatment should be withdrawn, even over the objections of a patient’s family.
But these are not just decisions that individuals make for themselves or on behalf of dependants and loved ones incapable of formulating the answer: No. Every erosion of the principle that all life is sacred, no matter the infirmities or “indignities,” adds to the manifest disregard, the impatience, with those whose limited existence is deemed less worthy, intolerable and an encumbrance. It dilutes the time-immemorial taboos against taking a life.