alongside a piece by National Pubic Radio commentator Marion Winik. Both appeared in a "point-counterpoint" format on the opinion page of the Philadelphia Inquirer in the April 17, 2001 issue. She had published a book entitled "First comes love" that served as a basis for her comments.
This article was published
The Dutch parliament’s decision to legalize euthanasia reverses a universal attitude of respect for the process of death and dying, traditional in western societies for centuries. We should not underestimate the importance of this event: for the first time in modern history, a country has decided to sanction in law, as a reasonable act, the deliberate taking of a human life. These events serve to expose a deep fault line in our society defined by divergent notions of the human person and the value of human suffering.Advocates of euthanasia argue that there can come a time when life becomes too difficult, suffering too burdensome, and when death - on my terms, when I want -- is the only reasonable option. In those extreme circumstances, and always taking proper safeguards, to relieve suffering by putting the person out of his or her misery may even be the most compassionate response. Why should we allow another human being to suffer grievously when, within a few hours or days, they will die anyway? When they do not recognize in what remains of their life any remnant of joy or value? What possible harm can be done by taking the life of a fellow human being in these circumstances?
Confronted by these tough questions, we might feel compelled to relent, to admit that, yes, a life like that should be erased. As a medical oncologist, I have struggled with the “hard cases” from time to time, yet I can only conclude that to deliberately take the life of a dying patient, even in trying circumstances, is a deeply pessimistic and ultimately harmful attitude for patients, doctors and society at large. Let me explain.
Until the Renaissance, even the finest paintings had a two-dimensional, linear quality to them. Then, developing a technique they called “chiaroscuro”, artists learned to represent the light and the shadows, the brightness and darkness of their subjects in a new and powerful way. Their works acquired an unexpected perspective and depth that reflected reality much more accurately. Suffering is to life what chiaroscuro is to painting. It captures the depth and breadth of our existence, and helps us appreciate important realities that perhaps we had previously overlooked. By learning the lessons of suffering, individuals and society stand to benefit, yes benefit, from the experience.
Suffering is always an intensely personal experience. We can never presume to fully understand what motivates a person seek euthanasia, but we can know that persons who suffer deeply are extraordinarily susceptible to external influences. They may be depressed. They may simply be lonely. In a culture that values youthful vitality, witty one-upsmanship and chummy smiles as the paradigm of human virtue, the sick, persons with physical or intellectual disabilities, the elderly and weak will be "in the way", not part of the way. We need to acknowledge that persons who suffer have their own unique, and vitally important contribution to make to society. They issue an invitation that can help us learn to be human: to think of the weak first, to be generous with our time and talents, to never be indifferent to the needs and frailties of others. In this way, with their infirmity, the sick and suffering can help civilize a society that each day seems less and less human.
Doctors and nurses are privileged witnesses of those raw human experiences that so often bring out the best and the worst in us and our patients. Suffering may elicit contradictory responses of courage or fear, anger or serenity, hope or despair, selfishness or magnanimity. There is probably no better window into the human heart than suffering. To witness the affliction of others is always an invitation to exercise true compassion, not the misguided mercy of advocates of euthanasia. Compassion is simply the sincere effort to meet the many and varied needs of the sick until the moment of natural death. To do this is to assert, in a tangible and effective way, the dignity of the human person.
To refuse and surrender to euthanasia is to deny that human suffering has value, and to affirm that pleasure (or at least the absence of things unpleasant) is the only value worth living for. This attitude condemns us to live an unreal life, a two-dimensional existence where suffering is seen as something to be feared and eliminated. The experience of physical pain, the limitations imposed by a disability or an incurable illness, the very personal world of moral anguish are all invitations to seek a good that may be found only over and above our self.
The word “compassion” comes from the Latin root meaning “to suffering with”. Assisted suicide kills a human being, but there is another victim. Our humanity, the capacity to suffer with the most vulnerable members of our society, dies as well.