Justifying one’s existence

Old Man by Domenico GhirlandaioHave you noticed that the subject of euthanasia/ assisted suicide is picking up momentum -- that it is, so to speak, taking on a life of its own? I mean in particular that we seem to be approaching one of those interesting tipping points in public debate where the tone of those supporting a once-shocking idea is shifting from defensive to offensive.

Take for a representative example one of the "letters of the day" in the Post's July 22 edition, from Alexander McKay of Calgary. Mr. McKay argues for assisted suicide with the conviction of one endorsing, rather than flouting, received wisdom. The notion that the individual not only has the right to control his time of departure from this Earth, but has the right to society's complicity in a death deliberately chosen, is embedded in the calm and confident air with which Mr. McKay projects his reasons for wishing, when his "wonderful life" dwindles down to a putative final season of debility and suffering, to "consider my options."

Mr. McKay does not wish to see his life "cruelly extended" (assumption: suffering and pain are unnatural add-ons to life, not as much a part of life as youth and vigour). He says, "life is for the living" (assumption: the terminally ill no longer hold the moral status of "living"). And, of course, "Canada's medical system is for those who need it" (assumption: medical "need" is an entirely fungible notion).

His trump card -- or so he believes -- is his final flourish: "What possible exercise in logic or morality (my emphasis) would deny me my dignity and force me to suffer against my will?" (assumption plus corollary: dignity is a quality that only attaches to health and personal autonomy; those who willingly suffer pain and suffering with a view to a naturally prescribed death have no dignity).

All right-thinking people, religious and secular, already believe that in cases where there is no hope of recovery and a life is seeking its own natural end, life should not be unnecessarily prolonged through artificial or heroic measures. As to the deliberate, state-sanctioned and/or state-activated termination of a life because it is no longer pleasurable, or because it involves chronic caretaking and/or is burdensome to loved ones, or for any other reason we squeeze under the benign umbrella of "quality of life," that's a whole other subject: Mr. McKay's in fact.

Well, here is where my sense of "logic or morality" leads me. The idea behind legalized suicide is that it will free the elderly, the infirm and the pain-wracked from their misery. In fact, those who will effectively be freed will be the young and the healthy. By removing the sanctity of life from the equation and replacing it with logic, we will be shifting responsibility for the care of the old and the vulnerable from their loved ones and society to themselves alone.

We have up until recently assumed that we cannot control life's end. When that was the case -- just as when we used to think we could not control life's beginning -- caretaking for those at the heart of the drama was accepted as everyone's responsibility. But now we would view late-life sufferers, as we used to consider unwed mothers, as having gotten themselves "in trouble" and in need of a termination to that trouble. Of course, as with abortion, the pregnant woman, or the sufferer pregnant, so to speak, with pain, can choose not to terminate. But then, if that's your choice, the result of the choice (the baby, the suffering) is also your problem, isn't it? Because in the case of the sufferer, if you haven't made a deliberate decision to die, then continuing to live is not a given, something you needn't concern yourself with; rather, continuing to live then also becomes a deliberate decision, one for which you, not your family and society, are responsible.

For a glimpse into a future in which euthanasia and assisted suicide are legal, read a short essay by Richard Stith, Her Choice, Her Problem: How Abortion Empowers Men in the August/September issue of First Things magazine. Stith, who teaches at Valparaiso School of Law in Indiana, makes the persuasive case that when having children became an elective rather than a natural consequence of sex, responsibility for children shifted wholly to women. Men instinctively understood that if conception could be undone, then so could their responsibility for being involved with the children women chose not to terminate.

Instead of empowering women, abortion has placed many women in a cleft stick. As Stith notes: "One investigator, Vincent M. Rue, reported in the Medical Science Monitor, that 64% of American women who abort feel pressed to do so by others. Another, Frederica Mathewes-Green in her book Real Choices, discovered that American women almost always abort to satisfy the desires of people who do not want to care for their children." If you substitute the words "euthanize" for "abort" and "elderly" or "chronically ill" for "children," the analogy with end-of-life termination could not be more clear.

As with abortion, if euthanasia and assisted suicide become legal, the voices of those who cling to the "sanctity of life" rubric will be pushed to the margins of public life. They will become pariahs, just as pro-life voices on campuses must fight tooth and nail to be heard.

Ironically, if euthanasia and/or assisted suicide are legalized (philosophically it comes to the same thing), by the time Mr. McKay's "wonderful life" has become less wonderful to the point of chronic pain and suffering, he may find, to his surprise, that against all logic he wishes to "cruelly extend" his life. But he may also find -- nothing could be more logical -- that others around him reproach him, saying no, "life is for the living," and therefore it is unconscionable for him to have such expectations.

And thus, as is so often the case with those who privilege "logic" over human nature and the natural law, Mr. McKay, and others who are so smugly sure they know in advance what their late-life wishes will be, may be chagrined to discover that the words "deny me my dignity" and "against my will" have taken on a whole new -- and rather macabre --meaning.

Barbara Kay is a columnist with Canada's National Post, in which the above article was published July 27. She writes and lives in Montreal.

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