The debate about euthanasia is heating up. Most questions of modern medical ethics arise from new technologies that present new questions. Yet, euthanasia has nothing fundamentally to do with technology; the concept of mercy-killing is ancient. Few cultures, however, have ever embraced human euthanasia as morally acceptable. What has changed in Canada today to bring back the debate?
Many things. Among the most important is our culture’s growing sense of nihilism about suffering and its significance. Owing partially to our material wealth, we have come to see pain as a difficult aberration in life rather than as a meaningful part of it. As such, when we see ourselves or loved ones in pain, we want it simply to end — immediately.
This is problematic since pain is a part of every life ever lived. From the agony of birth, to that first heartbreak, to our own inevitable passing, pain marks many — maybe most — of our formative experiences.
Of course, human beings usually wish to alleviate suffering — and we should, when we can. Yet, we will not always be able to. When we cannot truly heal someone, we are left with a question about their painful life. Does it still mean something? To endorse the act of killing someone as a tool for providing comfort testifies to a belief that the pain approaching death cannot bear fruit, and that a life of such pain has lost its purpose.
That, I certainly hope, is wrong. At the very least, it has been wrong in my life. A few years ago, my grandfather died. Debilitated by a stroke and what was almost certainly an undiagnosed case of Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease (CMT), which is related to muscular dystrophy, his mobility was traded for ever-growing nerve pain in his legs and hands. After a years-long descent, he went into hospice, unable to feed himself or move more than an arm. He died that way — in great suffering.
There is CMT in my immediate family, confirmed by genetic tests. In my case, there is a 50-50 chance that I have the genetic trait, and, as symptoms begin to manifest in me, it’s looking much more likely than that. CMT is absolutely incurable. Ironically, however, it seldom shortens a life. Instead, it fills it, little by little, with increasing pain until the end. There are strokes in my family, too — lots. I can expect to go much the way my grandfather did. In fact, I am probably already in the first stages of his same slow decline … even if it is probably going to take another 50 years for me.
That’s terrifying, and the appeal of suicide in face of it is not lost on me. But a memory stays with me. Before my grandfather died, we were called to his bedside. With great effort, he lifted his hand and offered us his barely audible blessing.
He lived one more day. Every painful hour that went by, he was still a human being; he still meant something to us — and to himself. He kept trying to eat, sit up, breathe. I remember wondering why. Whatever pushed him forward, it was something powerful.
I think I see some of it now. My grandfather would have been a perfect candidate for euthanasia, but by suffering instead, he has given me courage to face the same slow death. His example makes my life in the face of degenerative illness vastly more livable. His painful last years and final days meant something — gave something — and still do every day, long after his death.
Have we, as a culture, forgotten that that is possible — maybe even certain — when we seek meaning through suffering? Our own poets have not forgotten. As Saint Paul challenges death, asking where its sting has gone, John Donne and John Gunther give it a simple command: Death, be not proud, and Dylan Thomas rages against the dying of the light. These are moving, timeless messages about what we discover of ourselves in spite of, and through, the pain of death. When philosophers and theologians have objected to euthanasia, it has been because its use implies that there is no such meaning in final suffering. Do we really believe that they are wrong — that that suffering is simply pointless? There is pain, yes. It is coming, yes. But is that all we are — bodies here to feel or not to feel these things?
Advocates of euthanasia are compassionate people, but they’ve missed something: there is meaning in suffering. No human life, however agonized, is devoid of significance. I am grateful that my grandfather taught me that with a blessing that will walk with me even as I become unable to walk. Pain can never strip us of our humanity — why would we allow it to strip us of our lives?
Daniel G. Opperwall holds a PhD in Religious Studies from McMaster University. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario. This article originally appeared in the Hamilton Spectator and has been republished with permission.