He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Other Side: Mercy Killing & Merciful Living

I was very impressed by the general civility in this debate.  There was no snide remark, no satirical jab at the other debater.  There was a respectful expression of views and serious disagreement.  It's a debate worth hearing, not because it is a comprehensive case for either side or because it is a persuasive case for either side, but because it is a model for how debate should be conducted.

Because the debate question was, "Should voluntary euthanasia be legalised?" one issue which was brought forward was the nature of the consequences of legalizing euthanasia.  Both Peter Singer and Archbishop Fisher employed evidence to support their views by highlighting consequences that were favorable to their positions, just as one would expect of experienced debaters of their intellectual caliber.

It's not terribly difficult to notice that Singer made special note of the U.S. states (Oregon, Washington, Montana) and Canada, because those seemed to support his view that the consequences of legalizing euthanasia are not the creation of a slippery slope, that we do not see as a result an increase in the most vulnerable (particularly the elderly) being killed at their request or otherwise.

It's just as easy to notice that Archbishop Fisher paid special attention to Holland and Belgium, because he was able to find greater evidence of a slippery slope in those countries. Singer attempted to defuse the concerns in Holland and Belgium by pointing out that other countries had adopted the laws after seeing the consequences in Holland, but I think this an obvious failure as a rebuttal.

I find it difficult to believe that Singer would not realize that countries often adopt policies, mistakenly believing that they are successful, for ideological reasons that ignore the facts.  After all, if this were not true, then wouldn't we expect to see all countries legalizing euthanasia just as he recommends?  Is it not (on his view) the irrationality and ignorance of the evidence that keeps countries from legalizing euthanasia, and if so, then why would we imagine that the populace of a country suddenly divested itself of that irrationality and ignorance the moment it chose to legalize it?

Aside from this point of argument, it seems that on the whole, the evidence of a slippery slope appearing after the legalization of euthanasia is mixed, that the slope is in practice more or less slippery in some places than in others.  Perhaps this is related to cultural views about the sanctity of life which act as a brake upon asking for death in some cultures, or less positively, a mere irrational taboo against asking for death in some cultures.

This was not the more interesting part of the debate for me, however, and so I want to look back at the debaters as they were making the first statements of their position.  In the Archbishop's opening remarks, two types of responses to the dying were presented.  The first was a mercy killing, a situation in which a man shot his dying brother at his request to end his suffering.  The second was a similar situation in which a man sang to the dying man and tried to comfort him as he passed away.

As he points out, in both cases we are inclined to be sympathetic to the dying person and to the feelings of the person choosing how to handle the fact that someone they care deeply for is dying.  There is no easy answer to the question of how we respond in that situation because no matter what our response, the person will inevitably die.  That said, some answers are clearly better than others.

We all inevitably die.  At times, life is so difficult that we would rather death come sooner rather than later.  At other times, life is so wonderful that we couldn't even imagine a desire for death.  During the difficult times, it is no work of mercy to help a person kill themselves.  It is, however, a work of mercy to comfort the afflicted, and surely someone near death is afflicted and in need of comfort.

Whether we cradle their head or hold their hands, soothe them with their favorite music or ensure they have a period of gentle silence, we are acting in a compassionate way.  We are with them in their suffering, helping them to meet death with courage and hope.  When we care for the dying, we are living mercifully by seeking to alleviate their suffering without diminishing any joy they might obtain before death.

When we kill the dying, we end (or at least significantly shorten) their suffering on their way to death, to be sure.  We also forestall any joy they might obtain before death.  What's far worse, we fail to act with true compassion by being with them in their suffering.  In killing to merely end pain, we engage in the opposite of compassion, the roots of which mean to "suffer with", by separating ourselves from the suffering of the dying.

The dying do not need to be relieved of their burden of suffering so much as the dying need to know that they are not a burden, that they are our brothers and sisters, worth suffering with until the end.  The dying need to know that their lives are a gift to others even in the darkest hour, that they remain precious to us in a way that transcends any mere utility or convenience which we might gain from their lives.

The dying need to know while they are still living that their life has a meaning beyond the mere avoidance of pain, and we ought to make sure that they know it.  This is the merciful living which is far better than any mercy killing.

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