Ian Harris Otago Daily Times July 10, 2015
There are situations where helping someone to die must be a moral option, writes Ian Harris. But only out of love, after all else has failed.
Some moral choices are black and white – it’s wrong to lie, steal, assault or kill. Not always, though. Confronting an enemy in war, most would probably think it right to lie, steal, assault or kill – maybe not right in an absolute sense, but justified in the circumstances. Context matters.
The same applies to the debate on euthanasia, focussed anew by Wellington lawyer Lecretia Seales’ court plea to allow her doctor to help her die, should her suffering from cancer become unbearable. The judge ruled the law allowed him no such jurisdiction, and Seales died before her worst fears were realised. But the issues she raised about end-of-life choice grow more acute with every passing year.
I see three underlying reasons for that: a secularising society, an evolving understanding of God, and a changing perspective on life itself. Secularisation colours everything. For as our culture loses the binding power of a shared religious consciousness, which Christianity once gave it, restraints that used to seem self-evident have weakened and grown blurry. Secular perspectives on life and death now tussle with religious convictions, individualist imperatives with those of community.
“Isn’t this my body? My life?” asked Seales. Sure, but “my body, my life” are still set within the context of a wider community, and that doesn’t suddenly become irrelevant when someone is afflicted by illness, despair or decay. Quite the contrary, the community and its resources are well-springs of support, compassion, healing and hope. Then there’s God. In traditional theology, a God beyond created the universe and everything in it, including each human life. God knows best, and since life is God’s gift, it is not for any lesser being to cut it short. That means a blanket “no” to euthanasia, not now, not ever.
But that is not the only way to conceive of God. In the modern world, it is more constructive to recognise God-talk as a very human way of probing life’s deep questions of meaning, mystery and purpose. Every culture and every generation grapples with these. And as human knowledge expands, not only do old certainties about God seem less convincing, but men and women increasingly take responsibility for things that were once God’s sole prerogative – whether and when to have children, intervening in natural processes to cure disease, prolong life, and now, perhaps, end it. The absolute sanctity of life, rooted in God as the giver of life, is undermined by more human-oriented notions of life’s “quality”, “dignity”, “autonomy” and “freedom”.
In my understanding it is we humans who, for the best of reasons, create our concepts of God. Over aeons, the creative imagination has repeatedly generated a supreme symbol for the highest values people aspire to, one which touches all they affirm as ultimate and brings a sense of meaning, cohesion and purpose.
As concepts of God change, so do people’s attitudes to life itself. That effect is magnified by our continually expanding knowledge about every aspect of life – physical, psychological, social, spiritual – including the realisation that it is Earth itself, through its processes of evolution, that gave rise to all life, including our own. Indeed, the fact that any of us is alive at all is a miracle. Our individual uniqueness is the end result of thousands of chance meetings and matings over 200,000 years, one spermatozoon among billions fertilising one ovum among hundreds, generation after generation.
Bring together God as enhancer of life rather than its origin, life as a gift of the planet finding fulfilment in community, ever-increasing human power – what do they suggest in relation to dying well (which is what euthanasia means)? First, life is an awe-inspiring privilege. But our right to life is not a purely individual matter. Each life has meaning only within the connectedness of personal relationships (without which we would never be born) and of community (without which we could never reach our potential).
Second, the instinct and responsibility of doctors should always be to intervene on the side of life, by relieving disease, pain and suffering. Palliative care must surely be the default setting for the terminally ill.
Sadly, there are cases where that falls short. Then the question becomes: What does love require in this unique situation? Continued suffering when all hope is gone? Or assistance to a gentler death? If the latter, on whose say-so? By what criteria? With what safeguards?
This leads to the conclusion that helping someone to die well must be a moral option – but only out of love, after all else has failed.