Living Is the Mystery: I Believe We Should Enlarge the Debate on Euthanasia and Not Rush to Resolve It

Article excerpt

I believe we should enlarge the debate on euthanasia and not rush to resolve it

THE CURRENT DEBATE OVER EUTHANASIA IS OFTEN simplistic. The subject is complex. We don't even have a generally agreed-upon definition of the word. Is euthanasia solely an act committed by someone--a physician or family member--on someone else who is ill or dying? Or can the term also be used for someone who is ill or dying who kills himself without the assistance of another? Does euthanasia require the patient's consent? The family's consent? Is it separable from other forms of suicide or homicide? How does it differ from simply "pulling the plug"? If one type of euthanasia consists of refraining from the use of "heroic measures" to prolong life, how does one distinguish between those measures that are heroic and those that are standard treatment? What is the relationship between euthanasia and pain? Is there a distinction to be made between physical pain and emotional pain? How does one assess degrees of suffering? Above all, why are ethical issues involved, and what might they be?

I believe that all patients deserve fully adequate medical relief from physical pain. Emotional pain may be another matter. It is very difficult to say no to emotional demands of those suffering severe physical disease, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. I have always resonated to two quotations: "Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived" and "Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans." I find I need to remind myself of these quotations on a daily basis. Among other things, they point out to me that the loss of control, the irrationality, the mystery and the insecurity inherent in dying are also inherent to living. The emotional suffering involved in dealing with these realities strikes me as a very important segment of what I call existential suffering. It seems to me that "true euthanasia" patients suffer not so much from a problem of death as from a problem of life. I think they have a lot to learn from being assisted to face this problem rather than being assisted to kill themselves in order to avoid it.

More than anything else, our differing beliefs about the existence or nonexistence of the haman soul make euthanasia a subject for passionate ethical and moral debate. I am of a position that dictates against a laissez-faire attitude toward euthanasia, or what could be termed "euthanasia on demand." While I am passionate about this position forged out of complexity, I am also profoundly aware that I do not know personally what it is like to be totally and permanently incapacitated or to live under a death sentence as a result of a very specific disease with a rapidly deteriorating course. In other words, I have not been there. All that I write here, therefore, should be taken with at least that much of a grain of salt.

If I were a jurist, my judgment would be to keep physician-assisted suicide illegal. This would be my decision for three reasons:

1) The other extreme--making assisted suicide so fully legal that it is considered a right--has, I believe, profound negative implications for society as a whole. …