Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Six wrongs don't make a right

"When we listen to stories of terrible pain and we know we can't do anything about it, we touch our own vulnerability. We have heard the scream of pain, but we don't know what to do with it. None of us knows what to do with the deep brokenness of our world. Maybe that realization can bring us back to community. We can do nothing on our own. We need somewhere to be together."
--Jean Vanier, "Living Gently in a Violent World," p. 67

It seems Canada's Supreme Court has been listening to many stories of pain, but has somehow missed the point. Vulnerability scares people into trying to end the world's deep brokenness, the quicker the better, rather than find a way through it together. So while I'm all for compassion when it comes to people facing terminal illness, I struggle with the wrongness of the Supreme Court of Canada's decision in favour of physician-assisted suicide because of six bits of wrong-headed reasoning, and there are possibly a few more I haven't thought of yet.

Wrong #1: Every death is horrible and painful. Not true. Excellent palliative care is the best alternative to physician-assisted dying. If you've ever visited a hospice, you know what I mean. The doctors, nurses and counsellors there are committed to making death's transition easier for both patients and their families. They have many means at their disposal to bring comfort to everyone involved, and they generally excel at pain and symptom management. Dying provides many opportunities for people to say what needs to be said and feel what needs to be felt, though I am well aware that many people don't want to talk or feel when it comes to death. But why short ourselves of the awareness of the depth of our love and life? They are beautiful things.

Wrong #2: It’s better to die quickly. Really? It may seem that way when a person is faced with a frightening diagnosis, and unfortunately, the passion of the moment can lead to poor choices. Fear of a painful death, whether through terminal illness or serious psychological suffering, can create the conditions for a person to choose death over life. But by choosing death, they may be robbing themselves and others of a whole spectrum of life's joys.
Had numerous friends of mine chosen death when they heard the word cancer, they would have missed knowing the joy of seeing their grandchildren. Their families wouldn't have the many cherished memories and stories shared in the dying process. But physical and psychological pain were managed with medication, conversation, grace, good humour, and deep love... all things made more available through good palliative care. 
Another very dear friend of mine talked about ending her life when she became physically disabled, but thank God she changed her mind! She is an absolute joy to so many of us who know her, and though she doesn't get around the way she used to, she realizes now that she is still a very important and valued presence in our lives. I don’t want others like her to choose the wrong option and impoverish their loved ones... which leads right into...

Wrong #3: Assisted suicide is a personal choice. The decision to die is never strictly an individual thing. It may involve one person's body, but what about the well-being of their immediate community of family and friends? When one person chooses to die, we all die a little. Every family that has been touched by suicide knows about this. There are just too many "if onlies" and "what ifs..."

Wrong #4: No one would choose to live like thatInfirmity and disability can be frightening to a society that is used to being in control, but heaven knows that really, we control nothing! In and of themselves, illness and disability are NOT reasons to hasten death. If they were, I would be short dozens of wonderful friends. Our physical ailments and impairments allow us to care for each other, to be more human and fallible, to support and to be supported by the wisdom that not every life needs to be productive or efficient according to society's rather skewed social norms. Life is not only for the clean, quick and competent, or we're all in big trouble at the first sign of personal weakness.

Wrong #5: Turning our healers into killers is no big deal. Whoa! Now that really goes against the grain, and the Hippocratic Oath. The words of the Supreme Court ruling that allow assisted suicide in cases of "a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability)" are so subjective that almost anything can be argued to fit the category. I worry about my GP and how many times she will be asked to help depressed patients end their lives. I love my doctor, and wouldn't want to see her put through that, or any other possible ethical issues.

Wrong #6: Waiting for death is a waste of time. But wait a second -- death is a teacher, too. One whom, it seems, we fear. But there are many gifts in its hands, if we can steel ourselves to reach for them. Humility. The ability to let go of ego. To let go, period. A deeper belief in unending love. A greater appreciation for life. An experience of grief that can be transformed into a peace or joy we've never known before. A foretaste of what's beyond. An assurance that all can be well because Someone Bigger Than Us is in charge. Of course, that's just my faith coming through.

All these things said, I don't know how I would fare when faced with a terminal diagnosis. But I suspect I would want a place of comfort and consolation where I could be surrounded by people I love and have my pain eased. Somewhere, as Jean Vanier says above, to be together. Maybe it's time to write a few letters asking for more government funding to be directed into hospices and palliative care. 

The decision has come down, but I have a hard time trusting that the laws made to govern euthanasia in our country will go far enough to protect the vulnerable, especially since our government seems so fixed on its bottom line when it comes to healthcare. And I'm not sure we can get this cat back into the bag any more.

What do you think?

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