Sunday, November 16, 2008

Death as a Salesman: What’s Wrong With Assisted Suicide, by Brian P. Johnston

This very succinct book illustrates what is wrong with euthanasia. There are many things wrong with it, but the core problem is not just a debate over the facts, (i.e. what is going on in the Netherlands, the realities of pain management, etc.) but a spiritual struggle. Since the dawn of history, humans have always had dependents in their midst who are infirm through age or sickness. How societies have treated such people is a good measure of the moral health of that society.

How is this the case? Well, those that kill the weak implicitly are saying that the value of human life is dependent on what a person can do. If a person can move about, communicate, think rationally, than they are worth helping. If they lack any of these (or a combination of these) than their lives are meaningless. Death would be a mercy for such human non-persons. Oftentimes such individuals are deemed a nuisance since they don’t contribute anything to society but drain resources. Implicit in this statement is that being a cog in the larger social wheel is the key measure of a life’s value. Absent from all this, is the notion that human life is valuable in and of itself. This Christian notion is fundamentally democratic while euthanasia represents the absolute opposite in both Christian and democratic terms. As Belgian physician Philipe Schepens puts it:

“Euthanasia constitutes a major breach against the laws of humanity. It could in fact signify the abandoning of the very concept of democracy and relegate us to a new world and society which will be totalitarian. A society in which people may dispose of the very lives of others, where you have to be declared fit by others to receive from society the right to live. A society in which the individual can exist only if he is wanted by others, and who therefore ceases to have absolute value. A society in which the weak must yield to the stronger. This is more than decadence. This is a gradual return to the law of the jungle, to an animalistic society where the survival of the fittest is the rule.”

The ancient Greeks condemned suicide and even the Greek term ‘euthanasia’ which means ‘good death’ is a neologism which was never used by the ancients in the same way we use the term. This tradition is summed up in the Hippocratic Oath, “I will give no deadly medicine, even if asked, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.” Hippocrates, the Greek doctor who first really deserved the name, as he separated the practice of medicine from magic, knew that a physician who could kill as readily as he could heal, would have a trust deficit with his patients to say the least. Killing the weak is not a new enlightened concept, but an old and rejected one.

The rest of the book discuses the horrors of the euthanasia experiment in the Netherlands, the realities of pain management, and good hospice care. The other major topic are those vulnerable to euthanasia. The poor, elderly, depressed, disabled and infirm are obvious targets. Such people deserve love and care, rather than encouragement to commit suicide. Ultimately assisted suicide is for those that society no longer cares for. It responds to the human need for love in times of distress with the coldness of intentionally taking such people out of this world an out of our lives.

“The man who kills a man kills a man. The man who kills himself kills all men. As far as he is concerned, he wipes out the world.” G.K. Chesterton

“Hold back those who are being drawn to death,” Book of Proverbs

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