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Euthanasia’s Slippery Slope Going Mental

Last month in these pages, we addressed the potential risk present when doctors begin to discuss [1] with their patients options for ending life, especially as it impacts the covenantal relationship between the two parties.  All of us turn to doctors in our most weak and vulnerable moments, and we trust them first and foremost to do no harm.  Yet, a glimpse at statistics [2] coming out of northern Europe reveals that, where it is permitted, euthanasia is growing, accounting for as many as 3-4% of deaths in some countries, a rate 2-3 times higher than only a decade  ago.  While the majority of these people were suffering from cancer and perhaps would have never recovered, not all were suffering from life-ending circumstances.   In fact, recent reports from Belgium and The Netherlands substantiate the longstanding fear of the slippery slope [3] with respect to euthanasia and assisted suicide laws.  In both countries, there is a growing trend to euthanize people who are suffering not from terminal illness, but from psychiatric illness [4].

The Shocking Reality

All mental health professionals live with the fear that someday a client may take his own life, feeling he is no longer able to endure his mental and emotional anguish—and, sadly, that does happen.  However, to willingly participate in a life-ending event is, or should be, unconscionable.

Yet, in the Netherlands, not only are those in psychiatric distress being considered candidates for euthanasia, but in the span of one year, 11 people were euthanized whose only recorded complaint was that they were “tired of living [5].”  In Belgium, depression, schizophrenia and Asperger’s syndrome are counted among the diagnoses from which persons are seeking relief through euthanasia.  While each of these diagnoses indeed carries with it painful suffering, intervention is available to remediate the difficulties in many cases, and many forms of depression are not chronic but rather episodic.  Sadly then, a person in the midst of a severe depressive episode [6], who opts for euthanasia at the depths of his torment, is deprived of life and the opportunities that would come when his depression lifts.

As the numbers begin to grow, so does the evidence [7] that the circumstances which meet the so-called standard of practice for euthanasia are becoming looser, the bar is being lowered and Pandora’s box is being opened.

What Help Is Available?

Because no one can truly know the depth of another’s suffering, the question is rightly raised regarding what alternatives to suicide, physician assisted or otherwise, are available.  For those circumstances involving a psychiatrically-ill person, I offer two lines of thought.

First, with respect to emotional or mental difficulties, I would note the many advances in treatment over the past several decades which provide humane, non-invasive and often substantive relief to a person suffering from a range of problems, including the aforementioned schizophrenia [8] and Asperger’s Syndrome [9].  While those with these or other psychiatric problems may continue to struggle even when appropriately treated, many can, and do, live fruitful lives.

The mistaken notion that the life of one who suffers is meaningless for him and an undue burden on others is at the heart of the push to euthanize, which leads me to the second point: in contrast to the sick-people-are-a-burden hypothesis of the pro-euthanasia adherents, sick, suffering people might alternatively be seen in a more truthful light—as persons in need of fellowship and care, and models of courage and strength.   The vulnerable among us, ironically, often possess the ability to overcome obstacles and endure suffering to a far greater degree than those in more fortunate circumstances.  I, personally, have been deeply touched and strengthened by just such people.  Of course, there are those persons whose affliction is quite severe, and whose need is very great—but that is precisely the point.  As a society, we are at our best when we are reaching out to, and assisting, those who cannot help themselves.  In the words of the prayer for peace often attributed to St. Francis: “it is in giving that we receive.”

The false compassion of euthanasia is, in reality, a distorted effort at dealing with the suffering person.  It is proffered as therapy, but it is the antithesis of therapy.  Therapy strives to heal.  Euthanasia just kills.

Medicine has as its basis the therapeutic role to aid, to heal and to provide comfort when one’s illness has progressed beyond remedy.  To euthanize someone, or to assist such an act, is both an abuse of medicine and contrary to the oath of the physician.  Death is not a remedy for anything, really; it merely eliminates the “problem.”  But the problem is, in fact a person.  Rather than offering death to a mentally ill or distressed person, let us give them a response that is actually therapeutic and is in keeping with their true dignity [10] and need.  Let us give them companionship, accompaniment and a personal gaze of love.