Sunday, August 16, 2015

Death And Human Dignity

Here’s a sign of things to come [link] or, better yet, a present reality that is becoming more common all the time:  
 
A British woman with no serious health issues ended her life July 21 at a suicide clinic because, she said, she didn't want to grow old. Gill Pharaoh, 75, said her work in a nursing home revealed the "awful" truth of old age and burdens placed on loved ones and caregivers, the Telegraph reports by way of the Sunday Times.  

Gill Pharaoh, in a photo from her blog
     Let me emphasize at the outset that I don’t wish to ridicule Pharaoh: I pray that she can find God’s mercy in the hereafter.  She provides us with a concrete example, however, of how today’s conventional wisdom promotes death as the solution to our problems.  The appeal to relieve the “burdens placed on loved ones and caregivers”, for instance, is one of the primary emotional appeals that euthanasia advocates use (and both euthanasia and abortion promoters rely heavily on an appeal to emotion). Pharaoh herself, who wrote extensively about her decision before she killed herself, dismissed the idea that she should expect the support of her children in her old age, saying: "I had children for the personal and selfish reason that I wanted them for the pleasure and joy they bring. I want them to enjoy their middle years without having to worry about me."
       This is a sad and confused argument.  Again, I don’t doubt Pharaoh’s sincerity, but I can’t believe that she was as selfish as she claims.  Surely she changed diapers, cleaned up vomit, awakened from much-needed sleep to feed or comfort crying babies, none of which is very joyful or pleasurable, and that didn’t deter from giving birth again.  Did she really think of her children as merely a “burden”?  Of course not.  I’m sure she thought the “joy and pleasure” well worth the “burden” and, yes, the “worry” of caring for her children from birth to adulthood.  By even the crassest measure, isn’t it reasonable to expect her children to return the favor when she needs them to do the same for her?
      Needless to say, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to the crassest measure.  I’m sure Gill Pharaoh endured the discomforts and inconveniences of child-rearing for the same reason that any of us who are parents do: because we love our children, not because of some loss/benefit ratio.  We see the trouble we endure for their sake as a way of expressing our love, of making it real; that’s why, despite all the trouble they cause us, our children bring us joy and pleasure.  Ironically, what she has done now is really much more selfish: she has deprived them of the opportunity to love her in the same way.  Even worse, by citing their convenience as a primary reason for her premature death, she is placing responsibility for her decision on them.
    And, of course, there is more to the ‘"awful" truth of old age’ than the purported inconvenience to loved ones:        
 
she recounted a life slowly sapped of former joys like long walks and gardening sessions. "Not to mention the hundred and one other minor irritations like being unable to stand for long, carry a heavy shopping bag, run for a bus, remember the names of books I have read, or am reading, or their authors."  

A few decades ago, when we as a society still recoiled at the thought of intentionally ending any innocent person’s life, euthanasia advocates relied on searing anecdotes about terminally ill people undergoing excruciating suffering, or about people such as Karen Ann Quinlan who were kept alive only by machines, and who seemed to have no hope of ever regaining consciousness.  More recently we have reached the point where few of us seem to find it remarkable that we commonly starve to death people who aren’t even dying or unconscious, but are merely extremely old or disabled.  And so now, apparently, we are expected to accept that simply slowing down, or having to put up with “minor irritations”, is reason enough for otherwise healthy people to take their own lives.

The aged St. John Paul II
     There’s no reason to think that it will end here.  We live in a culture that has increasingly rejected the belief in the sacredness of anything, including human life.  Public schools (and many private, even religiously affiliated, ones) reinforce this worldview in a variety ways, and it is communicated by popular culture in countless messages both subtle and overt. It follows that if all we really are is protoplasm, or a particularly complex assemblage of molecules, what could possibly be sacrosanct? If the materialist view is correct, then there cannot be any sort of “meaning” to anything; human life itself is meaningless and suffering, which (in this view) is nothing but pointless pain and distress, is worse than useless: why not just put an end to it all?  In such a world suicide clinics can only multiply. Is it any wonder that St. John Paul the Great spoke of a “Culture of Death”?
      In response to this Gospel of Despair we Christians can point to the Mystery of the Cross.  Christ showed us in his own agonizing, distressing death that suffering even to the end can be not just meaningful, but redemptive: through our suffering we, too, can accomplish great good.  We have seen the lesson of Christ’s redemptive suffering reflected in the lives of countless of his followers, from the first martyrs to St. John Paul himself, who taught a worldwide audience that “death with dignity” does not mean cutting off the concluding chapters of our lives.
      Many of us know family and friends who have likewise embraced the Way of the Cross. In my case I’m thinking in particular of an aunt whose faith-filled serenity during a slow and difficult death from cancer had a profound impact on everyone who saw her in her final days. I couldn’t help but think of this aunt when I read that Gill Pharaoh had said: "I do not want people to remember me as a sort of old lady hobbling up the road with a trolley".  My aunt’s loved ones don’t picture her infirmity when they remember her: they talk about how she exuded love and joy, despite her suffering, an image of beauty in the midst of the ugliness of her fatal illness.  They don’t remember her depleted body, they remember her
     Again, my purpose isn’t to criticize Gill Pharaoh. She, along with the 611 of her fellow British citizens who ended their lives in Swiss suicide “clinics” between 2008-2012, and an ever lengthening list of others throughout the Western World, is a victim of a Godless, and therefore anti-human, worldview, a philosophy that tells us our “dignity” somehow lies in escape from what we are.  The Truth is very different.  St. Irenaeus said that “The Glory of God is Man fully alive.”  Suffering is a part of every human life: we can’t escape from it without denying our humanity.