Wednesday, January 13, 2016
Euthanasia is the Death of Life
At first, it's hard to dispute:
Dementia patients don't contribute anything to society.
Sure, there are for-profit companies in the United States that charge families big bucks to help care for dementia patients, but these memory-care facilities merely illustrate capitalism's ability to find a business opportunity in the worst of circumstances.
Nevertheless, it's not as though the memory-care industry is one of those "too-big-to-fail" sectors of our economy. Consider how much more money dementia and dementia care costs, beyond the pricetag for housing its victims. Consider the lost time from work as family members provide care to dementia patients. And beyond money, consider the emotional stress, as an incurable disease erodes a loved one's memory during the course of years and years.
Suppose you've had that awful meeting with your doctor, and you've learned your diagnosis. If you had the option of physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia for yourself, would you take that route, instead of taking your own journey through dementia?
In the Netherlands, it's just become easier for you to opt out of dementia, by opting out of life altogether. After all, what kind of quality-of-life can one have with dementia, anyway? According to a report in World magazine, the Dutch believe there is an "unwritten moral duty" to help dementia patients avoid their agonizing death spiral.
For years, Holland has been at the forefront of legalizing suicide, cloaking the practice with euphemisms of medical expediency like "physician-assisted suicide." Besides, it's not really euthanasia when people from a specific cohort of human beings can choose not to commit suicide, right?
Hey, it's not like Holland is methodically exterminating all of its dementia patients.
Yet there remains the fact that a specific cohort of people are being given the "right" to determine their own death. So the stigma of euthanasia - a term we usually deploy when some despot tries to wipe out an entire race - remains in force, doesn't it? After all, the Netherlands are crafting their death laws to accommodate a class of people: people who medical professionals believe are nearing the end of their sojourn on our planet. The age range of dementia patients can vary, but the concept of euthanasia for the aged and infirm can't be hidden. If you can't contribute to society because of your health, your government will let you decide how you want to kill yourself.
And an itty-bitty little country in Europe is leading the way.
At least for now, Holland's liberalized euthanasia laws mandate that such end-of-life plans need to be set in place before the person receives their diagnosis of dementia. Once a person is diagnosed, they will not be able to backtrack and file their suicide pact. Good thing - we don't want people with memory problems deciding when they want to die. But... "sane" people should be given that opportunity...
Does that make sense?
Towards the end of my father's journey through Alzheimer's, one of his hospice nurses told me, "you think the patient is the one who suffers most, but that's not really true."
I looked at her scornfully. But she offered a pretty plausible explanation:
"Most dementia patients - especially as they get worse and worse - don't really understand that they have dementia. They forget that they forget. Sure, they get confused, and they get frustrated by their confusion, but then they forget that they were confused, and the frustration goes away."
And indeed, there is a cycle of confusion, frustration, and then forgetfulness that Dad and just everybody else with dementia goes through hourly. One reason dementia patients sleep so much, it has been speculated, is that sleeping helps them avoid the confusion that sets the cycle in motion.
There's not a lot of physical pain in dementia. In fact, one reason why dementia can last so long is because its victims usually have few other physical maladies that could otherwise kill them before Alzheimer's does. For a while, towards the end, Dad was in considerable pain, but that pain was because we didn't realize his special wheelchair was creating a sore on his hip. Once we got a cushion for his wheelchair, Dad's cries of agony stopped. Dad also became quite weak, but that was from not eating. And since nobody can survive for long without eating, it wasn't long before Dad passed away.
There would have been no point in killing him during this period of time. It would have only shaved off several months of his life. And whose suffering had been worse during this whole time? His, or ours?
Ahh... that's the real dirty little secret behind euthanasia, isn't it? We're not so much worried about the patient as we are our own selves. We don't like watching our loved one's memory fade. We don't like the impositions our loved one's care forces upon us. We don't like paying for that care, monitoring that care, and not knowing how everything is going to work out. How much easier it all would be if we knew the end process, and the end date!
I've heard many people say that they wouldn't want to put their loved ones through such a horrible experience as caring for a dementia patient. Yet death - and the process of death - is a part of life, isn't it? For what else are our loved ones here, anyway? Just for the fun times, the good times? Is that all life is about?
Is life about having lots of money left over after you die? Is life about not having to watch a loved one suffer? Is life only about productivity, vitality, and having a good memory?
Even if you don't believe in the sanctity of life, and the authority God has over deciding when life begins and ends, consider the practical application of euthanasia: If not God, or "fate," or Father Time; who else gets to decide when you die? Who decides when your vitality is over? Who decides when you are a drain on society? Who decides when the pain is too much?
There's no avoiding the raw reality that euthanasia is a slippery slope, and once you've set one foot upon it, there's no going back. It's death-creep.
That's why Holland is getting it massively wrong. Life is not for us to abort, either before a human being is born, or before their natural end comes. We can't simply impose our wishes on any human life's most basic milestones through political whim, legislative posturing, or platitudes about suffering. Or cost accounting.
If the definition of a progressive society is one that wants to cannibalize itself, then we've gone through thousands of years of civilization for nothing.
By the Way: After posting this essay, I learned that a distant relative of mine, who I never knew, died from assisted suicide last fall in Finland. In addition, according to a Finnish cousin of mine who works as an elder care professional, Finland's out-of-pocket costs for elder care, despite its socialized medicine, are climbing rapidly for individual patients. My cousin bluntly wonders if, eventually, "natural death" may be a luxury only the rich can afford. I hadn't thought of it that way. Looks like we'll need to take better care of our old people, and put our money where our moralistic mouths are, so euthanasia won't become more cost-effective than natural death.