Sunday, February 3, 2013

Dying with dignity is more than physical

The province of Quebec has responded to the report of its  "Dying with Dignity" commission. The Quebec proposal is recommending that euthanasia/assisted suicide be decriminalized in limited and rare cases. The province is proposing that terminally ill individuals be allowed to request the help of a doctor to end their life. 

Under Quebec's proposal, an individual could make the request providing the individual is:
  • suffering from an incurable disease, with no hope of improvement
  • experiencing intolerable physical or psychological pain
  • receiving palliative care
The proposal places euthanasia/assisted suicide within the realm of medical care; in this context, euthanasia/assisted suicide would be considered an appropriate, and compassionate level of “medical aid in dying”.

In euthanasia, a third party, such as a doctor, takes the action that ends the individual’s life, while in assisted suicide the dying person takes the final action that causes death.

Those who express support do so from a place of compassion
A recent call in show on CBC Radio debated the issue of euthanasia/assisted suicide. Callers from both sides of the debate shared their experiences.  The callers had journeyed with people they loved through debilitating diseases, and the process of dying. It was evident that this experience had profoundly affected each one of them, and influenced their opinions. Those who expressed support for euthanasia/assisted suicide were responding from a place of compassion and love.

While I do not support euthanasia or assisted suicide, I understand why many people favor the Quebec proposal, and hold the opinion that euthanasia/assisted suicide is a compassionate, and humane response to dying. We do not want to watch someone we love suffer, especially when that person is dying from a painful and debilitating disease that robs the body of its ability to function. We have a collective aversion to pain and suffering. Out of compassion for the dying, we want their suffering to end.

Equating human dignity with a properly functioning body
The discussion of euthanasia/assisted suicide is often framed in terms of human dignity, and we hear frequent references to ‘dying with dignity’.  There is a perception, and a fear that we can lose our dignity in the dying process. As a society, we are developing a vision of dying with dignity that, in my view, relies too heavily on our physical capacities.

We have come to equate human dignity with a properly functioning body. In the euthanasia/assisted suicide debate, when we talk about human dignity, we are most often referring to things like the terminally ill person’s ability to communicate, and to control bodily functions, especially eating and elimination.  A body that is in decline is seen as undignified, and an affront, robbing the individual of ‘quality of life’, and causing unnecessary suffering to the dying and those with them.

Human dignity depends on more than the vigour of the body
Most Canadians would agree that human life is precious. Many of us consider human life to be sacred.  In the Christian worldview, which I share, the human person is more than a physical body. In the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (# 364), we are animated by a spiritual soul, and we share in the dignity of the image of God. Body and spirit, precious and sacred, the human person has an innate and inviolable dignity.

A view of human dignity that relies solely on the vigour of the body takes into account only one dimension of the human person. It overlooks the psycho-spiritual dimensions of the person.  Human dignity depends on the whole person, and should never be restricted to the physical.  We do not lose our dignity when our body breaks down.

Death may be a moment of exceptional grace
Medical care, especially when caring for the terminally ill, should consider the whole person. Suffering and death, more than any other experience in life, reveals the spiritual dimension of our existence. A comprehensive debate on euthanasia/assisted suicide must include a rigorous discussion on the concept of human dignity. While death is the disintegration of the body, it may also be a moment of exceptional grace, when we discover fully and completely our imperishable dignity, and meet its author face to face.

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