alea iacta esto

Euthanasia: Grace and Dignity For The Dying

I was reading the letters of the Younger Pliny (there was an Elder Pliny, an uncle to the Younger, who perished when Vesuvius erupted) and came across one letter about the plight of his friend Titius Aristo, a man he loved and admired and who had “no equal in moral influence and wisdom.” A man whose “adornment is in his greatness of mind, seeking a reward for a good deed in its performance and not in popular opinion.” How refreshing is that! Set this against a background of TV reality shows stuffed with dunces grasping for wealth and fame and stars thrusting to be captured wholesome and sexy in the pages of OK magazine. I digress.

Pliny was concerned about his sick friend Titius who had been ill a long while and was now seeking the opinions of doctors to enquire if his illness was terminal. Because if so he intended to end his life his own way with dignity. As Pliny puts it: “Many people have [the] impulse and urge to forestall death but the ability to examine critically the arguments for dying, and to accept or reject the idea of living or not, is the mark of a truly great mind.” Now this got me thinking about euthanasia.

We’ve all heard the familiar arguments against euthanasia and assisted suicide so let’s briefly examine the more trenchant objections. First: religion. The argument is that God gives life and only God can take it away. This is a fine argument if you believe in God. It’s oppressive for christians to insist that everyone else must take their line. I’m yet to hear of the case where God descended next to a bed-ridden vegetable or someone in unbearable torment and terminally ill with the words “I know you’re in pain. I know there’s no hope for you and I can see your wife/husband/children/friends here in terrible agony as they watch you writhe and suffer. But it’s all for a reason that only I in my infinite wisdom know. I gave life and you die when I say so even if that means another two years of living hell.”

Second argument: it’s against the law. That’s easy to rectify. Change the law. Third argument: it’s cowardly. This is easily refuted. We have a natural impulse to stay alive. Deciding to end one’s own life (I’ll add for the terminally ill and in pain or tending towards a vegetable state) must be one of the bravest decisions a person can make. What is cowardly is the inability to face life as it is and accept that it’s over when it is over.

Fourth argument: what about the people left behind, you know the sweet little children and the beautiful wife etc. They are already suffering and will continue to do so up until the person eventually dies. And they will grieve even more when death comes. And afterward, they will be bitter at a world that prolonged suffering for their departed one. With euthanasia everyone’s suffering is curtailed. Everyone wins.

Fifth argument: we might find a cure. It was St. Paul who said if we hope for what we can’t see then we must wait for it with patience. Mark this against Nietzsche’s quip that in reality, hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs man’s torments. Of the two men, one lived in lala spiritualism and the other lived on lala earthland. Yes, there might be a cure tomorrow just like I might win the lottery tonight. That might happen someday in the long run but as John Maynard Keynes, the great economist, observed in the long run we are all dead. There comes a time when you cut your losses and move on.

Final argument: the sick might change their mind. This applies if the illness is not terminal or if one wishes to die simply because one is tired of the struggles of living and despairs of hope. [Yes, hope again. I believe in hope too just not when it’s hopeless]. Who knows what tomorrow may bring? But this argument does not apply in the cases I’m concerned with, that is, terminally ill in acute agony or slipping into a degenerative state.

When Socrates was condemned to death (for encouraging young men to question everything including the gods) his friends came round and tried to convince him to appeal or flee. He refused. His words to his convicting jury: “Now the hour to part has come. I go to die, you go to live. Which of us goes to the better lot is known to no one, except the god”. How’s that for godless fearlessness.

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