Recently I received a response from a friend of mine after writing an article on how Christians are persecuted, not only in the middle ease or Africa, but in Western countries such that any stand we take on issues like Euthanasia or Abortion are immediately pounced on as examples of how the Church is irrelevant, holding such archaic views that lack compassion. His response to me was: “Elder abuse is a big story the western media is ignoring. That’s why I don’t think the church’s stance on euthanasia is archaic, however I can think of many other scenarios where it is. A compassionate stance should be trying to create a society where older people feel valued.”
The last statement in particular got me thinking that perhaps it is not specifically an anti-religious or anti-Catholic stance, but rather a by product of a Consumerist/Capitalist philosophy that has problems with citizens who are not or no longer productive units of the economy, but rather an economic drain on the budget.
The Liberal reforms in England of 1906 to 1914 marked a change in government policy from a largely Laissez Faire approach to a more ‘collectivist’ approach. The government now accepted that it should have a much larger role and responsibility in helping those sections of society who could not help themselves. The aged care pension passed into law in 1909 as a recognition of the life contribution citizens make to the society, and as such was an expression of their value. Today, the need to balance budgets mean that governments are looking for ways to cut down expenditure. Raising the pension age is looked at as a potential strategy, the argument being that when the pension came in originally, people did not live as long. In 1900, less than 1% of the population in Western countries were 65 years of age or older. In 1992, it was 6.2% and the predictions are that in 2050, it will be a fifth of the population that are 65 or older. This, of course, has been due to improved medicine and sanitation.
In the 20th century, the risk of death from infectious disease had diminished. Degenerative diseases associated with aging – heart disease, stroke and cancer – have become much more important. This not only puts a strain on the budget due to pension payouts but also puts a strain on health care. All these factors have our, and other Western governments, worried. But the danger, in an society that favours an economic rationalist philosophy, is that instead of valuing our aged citizens, they are become as an economic liability or problem. This can lead them to contemplate what might at one time have been considered unthinkable.
In a society where the predominant philosophy is secular and consumerist, we need to be particularly vigilant against the deterioration of what values we have left. After all, a consumerist model suggests that if you buy something at a shop, and it eventually wears out, the colour fades, or you just don’t like it anymore, you get rid of it and buy a new one. It is much cheaper to do this than to try to get it fixed. Isn’t it the same with people? Isn’t it the same with relationships?
Australian-Canadian ethicist, Margaret Somerville, remarked recently that she was appalled by the euthanasia debate in this country. As she put it, “The pro-euthanasia people can’t wait to get killing people.” (The Catholic Weekly 25/8/16). In the National Post she rejects euthanasia arguing that it is dangerous for vulnerable people and society.
In an article in Arts and Opinions, 2006, Somerville writes: The case for euthanasia is easily made by focusing on heart-wrenching individual cases of very difficult deaths that make dramatic and compelling TV footage. The case against euthanasia is much more difficult to present because it depends on harm to some of our most important societal values, to the important institutions of medicine and law, and to present and future generations and societies.
Euthanasia is intentionally killing another person to relieve their suffering. It is not the withdrawal or withholding of treatment that results in death, or necessary pain- and symptom-relief treatment that might shorten life, if that is the only effective treatment.
Euthanasia is not, as euthanasia advocates argue, just another option at the end of a continuum of good palliative care treatment. It is different in kind from them. To legalize euthanasia would damage important societal values and symbols that uphold respect for human life. If euthanasia is involved, how we die cannot be just a private matter of self-determination and personal beliefs, because it involves other persons and society’s approval of their actions. It overturns the prohibition on intentional killing, which the British House of Lords called “the cornerstone of law and human relationships, emphasizing our basic equality.”
Medicine and the law are the principal institutions involved in legalizing euthanasia. In a secular, pluralistic society they are responsible for maintaining the value of and respect for human life. Euthanasia would seriously damage their capacity to do so. Paradoxically, their responsibility is much more important in a secular society than a religious one, because they are the “only game in town.”
To legalize euthanasia would fundamentally change the way we understand ourselves, human life and its meaning. We create our values and find meaning in life by buying into a “shared story” — a societal-cultural paradigm. Humans have always focused that story on the two great events of every person’s life, birth and death. In a secular society — even more than in a religious one — that story must encompass and protect the “human spirit.” By the human spirit, I do not mean anything religious. Rather, I mean the intangible, invisible, immeasurable reality that we need to find meaning in life and to make life worth living — that deeply intuitive sense of relatedness or connectedness to all life, especially other people, the world, and the universe in which we live.
To assess the impact that legalizing euthanasia might have, in practice, on society, we must look at it in the context in which it would operate: The combination of an aging population, scarce health-care resources, and euthanasia would, indeed, be a lethal one.
Euthanasia is a simplistic and dangerous response to the complex reality of human death. Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia involve taking people who are at their weakest and most vulnerable, who fear loss of control or isolation and abandonment — who are in a state of intense “pre-mortem loneliness” — and placing them in a situation where they believe their only alternative is to be killed or kill themselves. How a society treats its weakest, its most in need, its most vulnerable members tests its moral and ethical tone.