Chipping at the Edges
Mark Steyn writes the following in a piece that touches on the Terri Schiavo case:
You can read similar stories in almost any corner of the developed world, except perhaps the Netherlands, where discretionary euthanasia is so advanced it’s news if the kid makes it out of the maternity ward. As the New York Times reported the other day: “Babies born into what is certain to be a brief life of grievous suffering should have their lives ended by physicians under strict guidelines, according to two doctors in the Netherlands.”
Perhaps I can be forgiven for allowing paranoia to mix with principle for a moment as I ponder the procedure for writing and amending the “strict guidelines” that define “grievous suffering.” Although the rhetoric sometimes drifts into a debate about whether or not Terri Schiavo is in a persistent vegetative state, floating around this issue (National Review Online’s Corner offers a self-contained example starting here) is the underlying question of whether her life is “worth living” or not. Putting aside the law, how does a culture define such a thing?
I ask because Projo blogger Sheila Lennon links to a personal anecdote from Barbara Brotman that steps a bit away from realm of being a vegetable:
My husband and I entered the murky waters on behalf of both his parents. They both headed into their 90s with dementia that left them unaware of their surroundings. Their bodies were gradually failing. They were adored by family members who agreed that if they began to die, we should not stand in their way.
One night, the phone call came. The nursing home called to say that my mother-in-law had pneumonia. The doctor wanted to send her to the hospital to be treated and was calling for the family’s permission.
Again, I have to wonder: where are the boundaries of “dementia,” and who will set the guidelines around it?
I’m wading deeply into speculative waters, but there seems to me clear reason to worry about a society that begins trimming its notions of rights and worthiness around the edges. Anybody who’s ever thought a Monday morning head cold would never fade knows that suffering is a fluid concept; when current, it feels eternal and unbearable. And anybody who’s ever been through or witnessed a teenage romantic breakup knows that whether a life is worth living is a matter of mushy perspective.
We all rightly despise suffering, and it is right to wish that our world did not include it. It’s also right to desire to relieve it in some way. We’d best be wary of looking to death for that relief, however, lest it become the prescription for midlife discomfort.