"The reasons people want assisted suicide include fear of being abandoned, dying alone and unloved—and of being a burden on others."
Loneliness and love aren't usually topics that come up in conversations about euthanasia. But the point above, raised by Margaret Somerville at a recent event hosted by the deVeber Institute at the University of Toronto, suggests that euthanasia is far from simply a legal issue. It is first and foremost a cultural issue—an issue that sheds light on how we understand what it means to be human, and what it means to be a human community.
Closely related was another observation made by Somerville in one of the law classes she teaches at McGill. She noted that her students no longer see death as the ultimate antithesis of life. Her students think that "yes, death is bad" but quickly add "but suffering is worse." In the course of her remarks she noted that this tendency to view suffering in life as a fate worse than death is a leading cultural driver—alongside horribly muddled language—of the movement towards physician assisted suicide and euthanasia.
Suffering no longer has any meaning. And therefore a life with suffering doesn't either. She noted that the most common place where suffering is seen as possessing some sort of meaning, even positive meaning—religion—is in decline, and that this too is a contributor to the euthanasia movement.
All of which caused me to consider two things:
First, what happened? When was it that suffering lost meaning? Did the turn come recently, or were the seeds sown decades ago? Were they sown, as suggested by Modris Eksteins in his excellent book Rites of Spring, in the killing fields of Belgium and France in World War 1? Or did it come after World War 2 and the Holocaust—events some philosophers suggest point to the failure of all philosophy and all religion?
The second is drawn from my recent discussions and reading with persecuted Christians, particularly the type of stories told by Nigerian Archbishop Ben Kwashi in Comment's fall print edition. Perhaps the greatest legal tool available to those who care about sound laws which protect the lives of the most frail is not a legal tool at all, but a cultural one: a rediscovery of the meaning of suffering. Could it be that persecuted Christians disprove that religion has failed? Might they overturn our sad and desperate understanding that assisted suicide is superior to a life of suffering and loneliness?
Christians have long understood that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. To read any martyrdom story is to become quickly acquainted with suffering. But sufferers need not be martyred for their suffering to be instructive. Even in comfortable North America, where we don't have to fear dying for faith, the shadows of suffering bring unique opportunity. Even here, a loving response—bathed in humility and presence—to the personal suffering of our friends and neighbours can teach a lesson of its own. Without religion, we will fail. And if this is seen even through suffering, perhaps in a decade or three, it might even have an effect on the law.