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On Death and Euthanasia

The Road Less Traveled author M. Scott Peck, MD wrote about euthanasia in his book Denial of the Soul: Spiritual and Medical Perspectives on Euthanasia and Mortality. This is basically his stand: Euthanasia should only be considered when the physical pain accompanying a terminal illness can no longer be managed with painkillers. Peck claims that with the discovery of morphine, relatively few cases now fall under this category. What he doesn’t condone is euthanasia on a dying person who can no longer endure the psychological pain such as the humiliation of a tough chairman/CEO of a company who, because of Alzheimer’s or some other debilitating disease, is slowly losing control over his own mind and bowel movement. Peck explains that as long as the physical pain is properly managed (he even criticizes the doctors who lower the dose lest the dying patient overdose on morphine), the psychological pain is good for the growth of the soul.

And that’s where Peck’s views will have to be set aside because this is a freethought site and the existence of the soul is being met with healthy skepticism here. For those who do not believe in souls, the pointless psychological suffering of a terminally-ill patient can almost be as hard to bear as physical pain, hence, euthanasia would be a logical choice.

I guess pain is a great stimulant while we are still physically and mentally active; pain encourages us to grow, to learn, to become better in whatever it is that we do. But when we stop being truly alive and start rotting in mind and/or body, pain ceases to be of any use to us. An ounce of humiliation might be a good thing for an arrogant CEO because it could make him become a better boss, but if this CEO can no longer do his job because of some untreatable disease, humiliation and humility will serve him no purpose.

In the wild, death often comes quickly. When an animal is sick or getting a little too old to catch up with the herd, it is immediately taken down by predators. Some are lucky enough to be attacked by lions because a single bite to the neck will sever the spine in two places, resulting in instant death. Others are unfortunate to be chased by a pack of African wild dogs because they are not as efficient in killing as lions. Nevertheless, no one grows old and decrepit in the wild.

Being on top of the food chain with only a few microscopic bugs to worry about, humans tend to hold on to something inevitably fleeting, stubbornly grasping at the vestiges of a life that will never grow back. Patients in an irreversible vegetative state are sometimes put on life support for as long as financially possible, draining the relatives’ funds by virtue of guilt, compassion, and “love”. But these good intentions are often misplaced, prolonging unnecessary suffering. A few may eventually realize and accept that, but sometimes just pulling the plug is not enough to prevent any more suffering. And sometimes even morphine is no longer effective in alleviating the pain.

The Catholic Church, of course, is strongly opposed to euthanasia. Let’s take a look at what some of their bishops have to say:

“A person who gives in to the desire for death opens the doors to expediency and undermines the foundation of social and civil life.” – Archbishop Rino Fisichella

Does this mean that suffering – including intense, needless suffering – is the foundation of social and civil life?

“No person has the right to take his own life, and no one has the right to take the life of any innocent person. In euthanasia, the sick or elderly are killed by action or omission, out of a misplaced sense of compassion or misguided mercy. True compassion cannot include intentionally doing something intrinsically evil to another person.” – Archbishop Anthony Sablan Apuron

Now how can ending someone’s suffering be intrinsically evil? Is compassion defined as the refusal to render rest and relief from excruciating pain with the assumption that God wants his beloved creatures to suffer a bit much longer before finally taking them into his loving arms?

Perhaps we take for granted or simply refuse to think of the fact that dying is not fun. And by ‘dying’ I don’t mean that exact instant when we take our last breath. I’m talking about the last few moments – which could be as “short” as minutes or as long as days – when you know you’re going to die because of the pain and suffering associated with a deadly disease. As Dr. House once described to a patient, “Your lungs slowly fill with fluid. You gasp to catch every breath but never can. Every breath is petrifying. It’ll be slow, painful; torturous.”

But an overdose of morphine can end all that. It will not only quicken the dying process – it will actually make the transition smoother and relatively pain-free. The patient will at first probably get high, then fall into a deep sleep, then finally die peacefully. How bad can that be?

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