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Hands of Mercy

June 18, 2014 7 Comments

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Editor’s note: Since the submission of this article, the provincial legislature in Quebec has passed Bill 52, which legalizes both euthanasia and assisted suicide in the province under a law that closely resembles the Belgian model. The Federal Government has announced they may challenge the law in court. For more information, please visit the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition online at www.epcc.ca.

The debate over euthanasia and assisted suicide is happening right now in Canada. Your words have power. Please consider writing your elected officials with your thoughts on this topic.

by L. Block

“Isn’t there anything you can do, you know, to help her go faster? I hate to see her suffer like this.”

The young man turned anguished eyes to me, the palliative care doctor. He had flown from across the country to be at his grandmother’s bedside as she spent her final days on earth. He had arrived in time to have a few lucid conversations with her, but now she was mostly sleeping, and the few words she uttered made little sense. Sometimes her hands moved aimlessly in front of her unseeing eyes. Sometimes she talked about packing for a trip. Sometimes she saw people no one else could see, and talked to relatives who had passed years before. Her body no longer wanted food or drink, and day by day, hour by hour, each system was shutting down.

It was difficult to watch. Her grandson was certainly suffering. But was she?

Euthanasia

The topic of assisted suicide and euthanasia is currently under fierce discussion in courts and newspapers across the country. The proposition is that the option of suicide in the face of uncontrollable suffering (whether physical, mental, or emotional) should be a fundamental right of all Canadians, and should be included in conscientious palliative care. Related is the idea of euthanasia, which is when the decision to bring about intentional death is made by a third party because the person believed to be suffering is unable to communicate a decision.

On the surface, this all sounds very compassionate. But couched in this compassionate-sounding language is a very harsh belief: that some lives are more worth prolonging than others, and that some people should choose to die.

On the surface, this all sounds very compassionate. But couched in this compassionate-sounding language is a very harsh belief: that some lives are more worth prolonging than others, and that some people should choose to die.

Although presented as a choice, this “right to die” has the potential to become a “duty to die,” which would affect the most vulnerable people in our society. People who don’t want to die may choose suicide rather than become a burden to their families, or may be convinced to choose suicide for someone else’s perceived good, opening the door to widespread elder abuse.

And how would such a change affect our existing palliative care system? It isn’t hard to see that helping people end their lives is much less expensive than offering high quality palliative care for an extended period of time. There is also a very real possibility that the “right to die” could be extended beyond those with terminal illnesses to include people with disabilities, or even mental illness. In Belgium, where the option of assisted suicide exists for those deemed to be suffering psychological anguish, this has already happened. What kind of a message will that send? “Your life is hard, because you can’t see/hear/think/move like other people. You can die if you want to.”

How does that impart hope to those despairing in the grip of depression, or offer encouragement to those striving to succeed despite physical or mental handicap? And how would it affect the kind of resources available? It is clearly much less expensive to usher someone out of life quietly than find a high quality group home for them. Or pay for the wheel-chair-friendly renovations on their house now that they have a spinal cord injury. And what about those who are completely dependent on others for all their care, or who can’t communicate a desire to live?

If our attitude as a society shifts to embrace the notion that some people are worth less than other people, our willingness to care for them will shift as well. Expressed in offhand comments, facial expressions, or tone of voice, this negative perception would do untold damage to our most vulnerable.

The Christian Response

All of this runs entirely counter to Christ’s model for the Church. Jesus Christ also preached compassion. He offered relief of suffering to the lepers, not by ending their lives, but by loving them. He reached out with physical and spiritual healing for the disabled. He opened His arms to the children, all the children, including the child afflicted by an evil spirit. Given for “the least of these,” this is real compassion. This is His model for us, too. We are not to be seduced by the idea of this world, that young people with perfect bodies and minds are somehow better and more deserving of life than those who are old, or ill, or dying, or disabled. We must speak up for those who cannot.

We are not to be seduced by the idea of this world, that young people with perfect bodies and minds are somehow better and more deserving of life than those who are old, or ill, or dying, or disabled. We must speak up for those who cannot.

There is also a great deal of fear around the idea of dying. Although we profess to offer “dignified death” to relieve others’ suffering, I think we are really more interested in providing insurance for our own. We are a society that worships the idea of control and choice. With great condescension, we will deign to be dead if we must, but we want to control how and when we die, and we absolutely do not want to suffer. Modern medicine prolongs lives more than ever before, but when it finally fails and the end is inevitable, we want to short-cut the process and control this too.

What does Christ teach about this? First, that all life is God’s, and that the office of taking a life, even our own, does not belong to us. Secondly, that suffering, too, is a gift from God. St. Paul suffered from “a thorn in his side,” which we presume meant physical pain, and God had His own reasons for this.

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I do not in any way mean to minimize the suffering that people face, whether it is physical or emotional or mental or spiritual. I do not know whether I will face my suffering patiently when it is my lot; I can only pray that God will give me the strength to face it. God uses all things to our good, even when we cannot see how. We must not rob people of the opportunity to respond to Him. How tragic if we should snuff out the smouldering flame of a soul on the brink of reconciliation! And that goes for the suffering of those who are anguishing with their loved ones as well. God uses the valley of the shadow to drive us closer to Him.

“Isn’t there anything you can do, you know, to help her go faster? I hate to see her suffer like this.”

The grandson was certainly suffering. The ensuing conversation was a difficult one. I gently reminded him that a life cannot be taken deliberately, and asked him to consider who was really suffering. The grandmother’s pain had been completely controlled with appropriate pain medications for many days, and she was sleeping comfortably. Her changing words and behaviours were normal and very common as each system of the body stopped working.

We cannot show compassion by being the hands of death; we must instead be the hands of Christ.

The greatest pain was, at this moment, being borne by him. And euthanasia must not be used as a balm to ease the suffering of those who are witnessing the death, or the disability, or the pain. We cannot use it to ease our own consciences, to say, “We did the right thing.” No, as is often the case, the right thing is definitely not the easy thing. We cannot show compassion by being the hands of death; we must instead be the hands of Christ.

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Dr. L Block is a family medicine resident in Winnipeg where she attends Immanuel Lutheran Church.