ASK JASON ANYTHING: Should you let a suffering loved-one die?

It’s a writer’s job to know a little bit about everything, and to thoroughly research anything he doesn’t know. ASK JASON ANYTHING is your opportunity to challenge Jason with a question of any kind, whether it’s scientific or religious, financial or social, political, historical. It can be something you already know, or something you’re genuinely curious to learn. You can ask trivia or knowledge or advice, and every Thursday, Jason will do his best to answer. (Read more atwww.jasonrpeters.com.)

TODAY’S QUESTION:

If a close friend or relative is greatly suffering, should you permit him or her to give up and die?

You’ve heard this circumstance. There’s an incurable disease. Or perhaps the cure is worse than the disease, like years of chemotherapy (particularly when it hasn’t worked). The afflicted has made his peace with god, with family, and with himself. And he insists its time to let go.

But you have this “respect for life”. You can’t sanction this person’s casting off into eternal goodnight. Or perhaps you believe that suicides go directly to hell. Or you’ll just miss the person too damn much. Whatever the case, you can’t let go.

Should you?

Jason’s Answer

Absolutely, you should. I know this view is unpopular, but I don’t volunteer to answer difficult questions in order to win popularity contests. There are hard truths in life, and on this website, such as that God wants you to suffer (so you’ll grow) and that getting a raise is a lot of hard work.

If I wanted to give you the popular answer, I’d look up polls and give you the party line.

Instead, I’m going to lay a hard truth on you:

You have no idea what you’re asking when you tell a terminally ill or constantly suffering person that he or she should continue living.

Types of Euthanasia

Before continuing, let’s acknowledge the right circumstances for letting someone go, and the wrong circumstances. Euthenasia (literally, Greek for “good death”) is defined as “ending life in a painless manner”. The definition itself doesn’t specify whether this is with or without someone’s consent.

Personally, I think we need more words to describe this concept. “Euthenasia” by itself can mean the practice of killing off people of a certain age (painlessly) to keep population down. It can mean taking your ancient pet to the vet to be “put to sleep”. It can mean what the pound does to an unwanted puppy who might still have had a happy life, or worse, whose previous owner had a change of heart and came to take him back only after it was too late. And it can mean that someone who’s already had and still faces a life of limitless suffering asks that it cease, and is granted his request.

With such broad possibilities, it’s important to define the parameters for what I’ll call Acceptable Euthanasia.

Unacceptable vs Acceptable Euthanasia

The sole determiner of whether Euthanasia is acceptable is if it’s whether the victim himself desires it. The painless killing of anyone else is not acceptable.

Now what if you can’t ask the person? What about a coma patient? Anybody’s guess. Which is why everyone should have a living will. Seriously, stop reading this and go create one if you don’t have one, or at least make sure your emergency contact knows just how you feel. It may not be enough to keep him/her out of trouble in court, but it MAY be enough for them to correctly advise a doctor in a difficult decision.

We obviously can’t ask pets, and so we’ve been that decision for years as best we can, gauging future suffering and unattainable medical costs vs the possibility of life enjoyed remaining.

While there’s much room for discussion when you’re left to guess, my definition of Acceptable Euthanasia means that there is sometimes a clear decision right away:
When the sufferer requests it.

Giving Up vs. Giving In

If you were diagnosed with a difficult disease tomorrow, admitted to the hospital the day after, and requested a peaceful ending the following day, I would have to question your mental state. This isn’t a case of giving up after years of suffering — you’re throwing in the towel before you’ve even tried. This I don’t accept.

This is suicide, not euthanasia.

When you’ve done all you can and suffered enough, you’re qualified to say something about how you might prefer to meet your end, and leave with a cheerful goodbye instead of a mournful whimper.

The Objections

The usual objection to willingly end someone’s life on her own terms is “respect for life”. Or that you’d be “playing God”.

Let’s get one thing straight right away: Doctors, nurses, hospitals, breathing machines, kidney transplants, chemotherapy, blood transfusions, and surgeries are already playing God. If someone would have LONG been dead in a different era, or if they would already have died without human intervention, you’ve already played God. You can argue that God wanted them dead and humans screwed up in keeping them alive just as easily as you can posit that God wants them alive and the humans screwed up by letting the victim go.

Give me a break.

The “respect for life” issue is even more amorphous, but is just as flimsy despite its adaptability.

For one thing, the definition of “life” is even broader than the definition of “euthanasia”. Insects are alive. Do you go out of your way not to step on ants? I’ve known a few people with kind enough souls to verify that even a very poisonous spider makes it out of their home intact. I laud their bravery and compassion. But if you have so much respect for “life”, this isn’t enough. You’ve got to make sure you never kill, even accidentally, don’t you?

Vegetarians will argue against the inhumanity (that’s what “inhumane” means) against animals. The problem is that we’re treating … animals … unlike humans. The thing I’ve always wondered is how do you know plants don’t suffer when they’re picked, plucked, pruned, harvested? Plants are every bit as much LIFE as animals are. The truth is that since plants are harder to anthropomorphize, nobody much cares what happens to them, even if you have immense “respect for life”.

This is why you see movements to save polar bears, seals, puppies, and panda bears, but the same environmentalists aren’t so concerned with even more endangered species of spiders, scorpions, centipedes. Hell, even bacteria are living. Are we not allowed to kill them either?

A successful gardener has to kill weeds to save tomatoes, carrots, beans, and more, right? What about the life of the beans?

Nature, without human intervention, is chock full of vicious creatures, suffering, and inhumane treatment of one animal of another. To assert that humans can’t similarly defend, cultivate, and eat is to ignore a vast network of natural which exists independently of — one might even say transcends — human efforts to tame these cycles into something more manageable.

So What’s Human Life?

So let’s leave animals, plants, and bacterium aside. Perhaps it’s human life only that you have such great respect for.

Great.

Define HUMAN life for me.

If a man lacks brain activity, is he alive?

If a woman can never breathe again without the aid of a machine, is she alive?

If your heart has stopped beating, are you alive? What if it beats again after the aid of a defibrillator?

Does a quadruple amputee whose face is also damaged beyond speech or eating have anything like life? Is it “life” to be trapped in your own body, unable to do or say anything ever again?

These answers aren’t easy, which is the point. No carte blanch view of life is open-minded enough to consider truly difficult circumstances. If you find the answer easy, you probably have less respect for the question than you think. Saying “everyone must live for as long as any effort or machine can keep him or her alive” is not only closed-minded; if you consider the millions of years of suffering you’d be inflicting with such a verdict, it’s downright cruel to hold this position.

What’s Compassion?

This brings me to our conclusion. Compassion doesn’t mean “forcing people to do it your way”, just because your way means they “should” live. Compassion means doing whatever you can to help someone in need. And there are cases where the compassionate thing is to let someone go, if he asks. Compassion means doing this even if you will miss the person terribly.

Compassion means being willing to accept viewpoints that aren’t yours. Would you physically BEAT someone who didn’t convert to your religion? Would you consider that a palatable act of faith?

Insisting that a suffering person remain suffering, just to satisfy your own sense of piety, is worse.

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