Several years ago I wrote an article explaining my opposition to deliberately ending the life of a terminally ill person. A reader wrote back: "What the doctor writes is well and good, but what I miss is compassion. If he had seen my mother suffering like she did at the end of her life, the only compassionate thing would have been to put her out of her misery". This gave me pause for thought.
Having worked in hospitals, I know there are countless stories of individuals who suffered terribly at the end of their lives. Part of the blame for this comes from futile efforts at prolonging life, rather than accepting that death is inevitable and providing palliative care. Pressure from relatives, the reluctance of medical staff to face their inability to cure the sufferer, and the patient's own fears and hopes all contribute to this tragic process.
I know too, from being at the bedside of many dying patients, that the process of dying can be exceedingly hard to bear – not only the physical symptoms of pain, nausea, and shortness of breath, but the "total pain" of physical, emotional, and spiritual distress. And perhaps more than that the fear of the unknown, the isolation, the sense of loss, the lack of control and perceived loss of dignity all contribute to the dying person's suffering.
It is therefore not surprising that some beg for an "easy death", or euthanasia. Certainly, few would argue that a naturally occurring death in someone suffering intolerably can be welcomed as bringing a merciful release. But is the intentional ending of the sufferer's life an act of compassion? There is no doubt that a compassionate approach to the dying person involves first of all the cessation of unnecessary and burdensome medical intervention, and secondly good palliative care which can relieve a large proportion of their suffering. Sadly, both of these are seriously lacking in today's financially pressured "outcomes-driven" healthcare systems. Indeed, I believe that with the right care, most requests for euthanasia would be withdrawn. However, there remain some whose suffering cannot be completely relieved even with the best medicine, particularly the fears and deep "pain of heart". What does compassion lead us to in these cases?
The word "compassion" literally means to "suffer with" another person. Sometimes there is nothing we can do practically for the sufferer but to be present – yet through this something deep grows between us that cannot happen in any other way. When Christ was suffering agony of heart in the Garden of Gethsemane, his plea to the disciples was to "watch and pray" with him. We often find this the hardest thing to do. Like Peter, who quickly raised his sword to defend Jesus, we want to "do something", and miss the call to simply be present, to "suffer with" another.
Euthanasia is thus avoiding the challenge of compassion, to go with the sufferer to the bitter end, to "drink the cup to the dregs". In fact, most people who request euthanasia are not actually suffering intolerably, but are afraid of losing control, becoming helpless and dependent, and of future suffering they may have to endure. By assuring a person that we will stay with them, come what may, we can go a long way to relieve their distress. And by helping the dying person go through with it to the end, they can reach final victory, the peace that I have so often felt in the final moments of a dying person.
Fear of losing control drives some in our society to demand the "right to die" when and how they want. Often these are people with chronic disabling conditions who are afraid of the future, and who wish to retain control over their destiny. This is a challenge to us to help such a person to realize that we care about them in whatever state they find themselves. Human dignity and self-worth does not depend on physical and mental abilities – anyone who has cared for a new baby knows this, and our lives are enriched immeasurably by people who are dependant and disabled in mind or body.
It can be incredibly difficult to accept an illness or disability, especially terminal, and yet I have seen an amazing peace in individuals who have come to the point where they can "let go" of trying to control things and who simply accepted their destiny. This opened a way for them to confide their past burdens and failures with a trusted friend, and be given complete peace of heart through forgiveness and reconciliation. In this way they touched the lives of many whom they could never have reached with a healthy body.
Rather than talking of the right to have an "easy death", let us accept the challenge to show compassion by seeing to it that each person has the right to live a fulfilled life to the end.