I woke up to the sound of rattling window shutters and thought of a hurricane. But the air was dead still and my bed began to drum the wall—earthquake! The April 6th earthquake in Abruzzo, Italy measured 6.8 on the Richter. It wasn’t quite enough to get me out of bed and under a desk but it did make me reflect on how my quality of life was being endangered by the 3 floors of shifting concrete above. The following day offered a deeper reflection on the quality of life as Italian rescue workers in a town a few minutes away scrabbled to pull survivors from beneath the rubble.
In one particular instance rescuers ecstatically dug out a 98 year old woman from under the debris and applauded themselves for their success. Intuition tells us that every life is worth saving; but such unconditional social dedication towards people in distress can’t be taken for granted in a world society becoming more and more accustomed to measuring life by its “quality”.
In the US a new economic stimulus plan contains provisions for rationed health care, an easy stepping stone to euthanasia. The treatment you receive will depend on how much quality of life you have left. Only Oregon and Washington have actually legalized euthanasia but Switzerland’s Dignitas already invites foreigners to end life early in one of their beds. It’s often presented as the compassionate solution but in reality legalized assisted suicide depreciates society’s attitude towards life. It says that people at some point are no longer worth helping.
Once human life ceases to be absolutely priceless there are no limits to how low we will bargain to end it when convenient. It’s a quick, easy exit, they say—but when there’s a quick exit, society and government are more inclined to make it the only exit. Then assisted suicide won’t be an option. Already in Oregon last year patients were denied treatment by health providers and offered assisted suicide instead. Maybe rescue workers in a future West coast earthquake will be instructed to do the same for a 98 year old American trapped beneath rubble.
A study by Queen Mary University of London shows that about a third of doctors in England are against the idea of lending a hand in a suicide; American doctors have been known to think likewise. The majority of patients also seem to agree from the looks of how they’ve responded to this “right”. After 10 years of legalization in Oregon, one prominent euthanasia enthusiast, Dr. Marcia Angel, had commented, "I am concerned that so few people are requesting it."
Though the numbers have gone up since then, they’re nowhere near the number of terminally ill eligible to request it. Again, in Britain The Guardian reported that at the most “several thousand people would avail themselves of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide if the law were changed,” in comparison to the roughly 300,000 who are in need of end of life care.
Mainstream opinion wants something other than a premature death, and perhaps only turns to it when all else has failed.
Assisted suicide is a sign of this social failure: an upside down idea of human dignity. Encouraging the suffering to lose hope in life has never been one of Western civilization’s noblest ideals. However, some response must be given to the thousands each year who spend their last moments in physical pain and loneliness. Silence is hardly an option just as passivity isn’t an option when faced with an earthquake.
Natural tragedies often remind us that simply affirming a person’s autonomy amidst his suffering—as euthanists wish to do—is an unsocial and even cruel response. A recent study by the Oregon Health and Science University on the reasons for euthanasia concluded the vast majority choose it because of worries about future pain, future immobility, and not being able to die at home in the future. Depression has also been seen as an important factor. And so perhaps we should do with the painfully infirmed what we do with the earthquake victims: comfort, encourage, and accompany them, and assure them that they won’t be alone in their future trials.
Many victims of the Abruzzo tremors would probably agree. They’ve lost everything, but they’re not asking for an early exit from life. On Saturdays a group of priests arrive from Rome to visit a camp of 1500 refugees. They deep spiritual consolation and show them that the human spirit can always find quality in life as long as one lives. “This is great, priests are what we really need here,” says a soldier as he lets them through the camp entrance. Because no matter how hard our troubles, we are all qualified to live.
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