Saturday, 31 July 2010

Assisted suicide

‘But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.’(Luke 10:33)

In several countries, there is a legal duty of rescue imposed on anyone who fails to help someone escape from further peril. The most famous case of this kind in recent memory was the investigation of the photographers at the scene of Princess Diana’s car accident. The crime of "non-assistance à personne en danger" (deliberately failing to provide assistance to a person in danger) is punishable by up to 5 years in jail and a fine of up to €100,000. There are similar laws in the US and other EU member countries.

Members of the medical profession also have a general duty to rescue the public within the scope of their employment. Significantly, Americans refer to these as Good Samaritan laws.

Even where there is no legal requirement, the parable demonstrates that we all have an ethical duty of rescue.

When we consider suicide, we should realise that it is an act of desperation. Even if a person who decides to take their own life appears calm, rational and lucid, you may still consider their circumstances unique and desperate. We can also never know the extent to which they may be subtly persuaded to avoid further burden to family or society.

Those who favour assisted suicide are essentially proposing two fundamental challenges to the ethical principles that I’ve outlined so far.

1) That suicide is not only permissible by law, but that aiding a person in the commission of suicide is not a crime. Individuals, including medical staff, will no longer have a duty of rescue towards a person who calmly and rationally decides to commit suicide, but just doesn’t have the means. Apparently, the duty of rescue has now been perverted into a duty to despatch that person, once they formally indicate that life has become intolerable. Suicide counselling will eventually involve discussing the patient’s ‘termination alternatives’.

2) That suicide is not only a liberty right, simply permission to do something. They believe it is a claim right: that it imposes a consequent obligation on society to perform it on behalf of an incapacitated individual.

Of course, that claim, if accepted, will place society into an ethical quandary: whether the new duty of care to assist suicide trumps the duty of rescue to prevent it.

If suicide is seen by its proponents as a right, why should they suddenly stop at terminal patients. Why shouldn’t they extend it to a general right of all responsible citizens. Also, what constitutes incapacity? Is it simply that the person is too physically weak to despatch themselves properly, or that they lack the know-how and emotional composure.

Advocates also challenge the moral concept regarding the sanctity and dignity of life. Sanctity simply means ‘set apart’ or dedicated to a higher purpose. The dignity of life is a universal and precious attribute of all humanity. However impoverished we are by suffering, life is a gift from God. In learning through suffering God’s higher purpose, we discover our true worth. Indeed, Christians believe that tribulation is part of God’s redemptive purpose. "If we have received good from the Lord, shall we not receive evil?" (Job 2:10)

‘Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance’ (Rom. 5:3)

Of his impending brutal ordeal, Jesus said, ‘the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?’ (John 18:11)

We would also have to consider whether the Christian tradition in desperate situations is to confront extreme harm, or escape through suicide. Even a cursory review of Fox’s Book of Martyrs would indicate that the Christian tradition is to demonstrate the power of God’s love by enduring, rather than running away from our afflictions. Of course, this doesn’t mean we abdicate from showing practical compassion towards those in need.

Dr. David Rabin died in 1984, after a five year battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. This condition causes gradual paralysis to a point where the patient can no longer write, nor speak. David lost control of every muscle group in his body, except his eyebrows.

A colleague told him of a computer that could be operated by a switch connected to one muscle group. He used that computer to talk to family, tell jokes and write award-winning medical papers. At no point in the disease’s progression, did he indicate that his life lacked dignity.

Suicide is, in essence, a wilful abdication from this life and its burdens. Though tragic, it is a total evasion of responsibility for the investment that society makes in the individual. To then think that the society so abandoned should also carry the weight of responsibility for despatching that person is the height of irresponsibility.

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