16 December 2016

Should we support euthanasia?

A friend of mine recently reported some terrible news: a friend of hers had been in a devastating house fire, suffering severe burns. The woman's son, just two years old, fared much worse—suffering second and third degree burns on over 90% of his body. They were both flown to a burn treatment center in Galveston. Last update I heard on the child: "They'll be able to save his eyelids."

I used to think that losing a child would be the worst thing a parent could go through. It's not. This is. I tried to imagine the absolute hysteria the mother must have felt in learning that her child was on the brink of death in what is perhaps the most painful ordeal a human can experience. If he survives, he could be facing amputations, years of surgeries and rehabilitation, and terrible pain. At two years old. A time for both mother and child that should be filled with joy and wonder and stories about small frustrations that become amusing in hindsight.

It's an absolutely heartbreaking story to hear. When I told my wife the news, and mentioned that the child might survive, she remarked, "Should they want him to?" I don't have an answer, but I think that what this child will suffer if he does survive may be a fate worse than death. He will never lead a remotely normal life. He will likely be permanently disabled and disfigured. He will suffer incomprehensible pain at an age in which he's too young to contextualize it or understand it. If 'good news' amounted to saving his eyelids, I would not be surprised if he'll spend his life blind as well.

Alex suffered 2nd and 3rd degree burns on over 90% of his body
We live in a culture in which saving a life is exalted above the quality of life. Elderly individuals are kept alive in bleak existences—my grandmother, who died two years ago at age 93, suffered a broken femur in her final weeks. She had been too weak to even sit upright to eat because of fractures in her spine. When I last saw her in 2013, she said, "I don't know why the Lord hasn't taken me yet." She was ready to die, but our culture was not ready to lend her that dignity. She died in a hospital bed, confused and in pain—a pale shadow of the vibrant, opinionated and loving woman she had been for most of her long life.

I vividly recall Terri Schaivo's controversial right-to-die case. She was in a persistent vegetative state, on a feeding tube and unable to have anything resembling a normal life. I strongly supported her euthanasia. That's because these situations do not just affect the individuals—they affect those around them who have to invest considerable time, money, and emotional energy into supporting them. In many cases, losing a severely disabled loved one comes as a tremendous relief to the family.

Is it not selfish to insist that we drag people on through miserable existence? To me, the right of the infirm or elderly to die voluntary is one that should be without much controversy. Those like the burned toddler are much more difficult cases. Is it selfish to drag this child through years of pain, surgeries, and therapy, knowing that he can never have a remotely normal life, much less a remotely normal childhood, to save him from death? Would death not be a far better fate?

I'd never go so far as to say that I'd support any kind of law mandating that people in such circumstances are 'put down'. But when I contemplate the extraordinary struggle that this poor child's mother will endure should he live, I'm forced to concede that if she wanted to let him go, I would be in no place to deny her that.

There is more to life than merely existing, and a life filled with suffering is no life at all. Perhaps in some circumstances, the best way to save a life is to let it go.

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