Sunday, January 30, 2005

A Culture of Life

Euthanasia is not an easy issue to deal with, in large part because of the high level of emotional engagement that is typically involved. In this way, euthanasia is similar to the problem of evil in that there is an analytical way to deal with the issue and a more “pastoral” way to deal with the issue. Because the pastoral angle is far more circumstance specific, I want to touch on one of the more analytical issues involved. I think we will find, though, that the two are not entirely disassociated.

Hospice Culture vs. Euthanasia Culture.

Some deny it, but there is a moral difference between allowing nature to take its course and actively killing a patient. My grandfather died of a long, consuming disease after being in hospice care for over a year-an unusually long time for someone to be in hospice. I still recall my first surprise with their care-if my grandfather began to die of something natural, they would not stop the process. They would manage daily care and pain, but if something happened that would eventually take his life, they would allow it to take its course.

In stark contrast are the growing reports of elder-care in Europe where active euthanasia is practiced. In those scenarios, when a doctor or group of physicians determines that a life is not worth living, they simply euthanize the subject. I wonder how long my grandfather would have lasted.

The moral difference between hospice care and euthanasia may be nuanced at times, but it is an important distinction. Robert George in his book, Clash of Orthodoxies, argues that a culture that euthanises instead of caring for the sick has become a culture of death. On the other hand, to manage pain and daily life and allow nature to take its course, a culture will honor and celebrate life.

It is becoming axiomatically true in our sound-bye world that the “brave” and “courageous” thing to do is to euthanise. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the face of great odds, constant pain and discomfort, and certain death, the brave thing to do is choose life. I have watched as friends and family have gone through the excruciating decisions involved with long-term terminal illness, and the most courageous and difficult decisions made were for life.

Isn’t the choice for hospice-style care a decision for death? After all, you are allowing death to come naturally without doing what you can medically to stop the process. I don’t think so. It is true that we are able to do many amazing things medically, and we are able to stop death in its tracks over and over. But, as many people discover, there comes a point where the aid of medical science is simply a thin and transparent veil. My grandfather’s condition was unalterable, and in his scenario, heavy medical intervention would have been a detriment, possibly an evil, and certainly not a good.

Overall, when anyone’s life reaches a point where euthanasia is a real issue, there are literally dozens of medical, ethical, and theological issues to weigh in the balance, and every situation will be different. And we have reached a point where our culture as a whole is faced with these issues and the consequences that will result. One of the issues involved that casts a shadow across them all is the basic decision that faces our culture-to become a culture of death or a culture of life.