The news story about the Belgian twin brothers who were euthanized on 14 December 2012, was the first story I read when I got home from work. The brothers, while in relatively good health at present, were given a prognosis of blindness and the thought of not being able to see each other put them in a state of despair. In the peace and quiet of an empty house, I became sadder and sadder as I continued to read.
Closer to home, Quebec’s National Assembly thinks it has found a way to circumvent existing Canadian laws prohibiting euthanasia and physician assisted suicide by calling for legalized assisted suicide in rare circumstances. Euthanasia proponents here in Canada who state emphatically that strict regulations will be applied to any legal euthanasia procedures are only fooling themselves or, perhaps, trying to fool us. Once the flood gates are opened, there will be no stopping the insanity. The Belgian incident is proof of that.
As a registered nurse working in the community, that morning I had visited patients in a nursing home and then, later that day, made a stop at a retirement residence. Each day, I care for people who are frail, suffering from debilitating physical and mental conditions, and struggling to get through the day. Those who are relatively healthy and independent worry about the day when they will no longer be able to help themselves. When I read an article such as the one about the Belgian twins, my heart is heavy because my patients are the most likely candidates for euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. Professor Margaret Somerville, founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics, and Law, McGill University, wrote the following in an article for the National Post Newspaper on 17 January 2013: “legalization … is especially dangerous for old or disabled people. If euthanasia is an option, they are likely to perceive themselves as a burden on their families and on society, which they could relieve through euthanasia. They could even feel they have a duty to die.”
While waiting for the elevator at the nursing home, I struck up a conversation with two people: one person wheelchair-bound and the other a frail gentleman pushing the friend’s wheelchair. Clearly, they were enjoying each other’s company and delighting in the conversation we were having. As I walked down the hall, I caught the eye of some of the residents and when we smiled and greeted each other, they appreciated the attention from a total stranger. The scenario was very similar later that day in the retirement residence: people responding to the consideration of a stranger taking the time to acknowledge their worth.
Euthanasia advocates are clearly missing the big picture. They continue to only think in terms of a frightening medical diagnosis, a difficult situation, a perceived loss of human value. Somewhere along the way, they stopped looking at the person behind the illness and the struggle. For them, life is meaningful only if the mind and body are functioning normally. They fail to realize that the value of a person lies in the fact that they are God’s creation and the person whose mind has been destroyed by the cruelty of Alzheimer’s Disease or whose body is ravaged by the ferocity of cancer has as much dignity and purpose as a healthy individual. “You have made him little less than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honour” (Psalm 8).
If we who are pro-life ever hope to take an effective stand against the growing acceptance of euthanasia and physician assisted suicide, we have to start with changing society’s fear of the wheelchair, pain, and debilitating illness; and we need to do it one person at a time—starting with ourselves. We can write letters, hold up placards, lobby for better palliative care resources, and debate on Facebook. In the end, the person in the wheelchair still needs to know that we care, that we value their life and embrace their contribution. They need to know they are not invisible. That’s the hard and frightening part because it demands an investment of ourselves and an honest evaluation of how we can make a difference in the life of a person who struggles to make it to the end of each day.
For me, it’s not much of a stretch. I spend my work days with some of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters. However, there’s plenty of room for others moved by love of God and neighbour who are called to volunteer, contribute, show up.
Let’s start with an honest inventory of our strengths, weaknesses, and attitudes towards illness and suffering. Then let’s move past that. We need to determine how we can be of service so that the woman pushing the walker, the man in the hospital bed, the person lost in an Alzheimer’s haze, and the people sitting alone staring at their front door know that their life is still valuable. Perhaps for some of us, our contribution will be as prayer warriors, practicing the spiritual works of mercy by offering up our petitions and sacrifices for the protection of all human life. For others, however, along with our prayers, we may be called to step up through volunteering or paid employment and actively practice corporal works of mercy, rolling up our sleeves and bringing God’s love to those whose poverty is borne of illness and loneliness. Either way, the gift of ourselves will be God’s light in the darkness of euthanasia.
After we sign the petitions and put down the placards, lobby for better palliative care resources, what more can we do? How more can we convey the value of all human life? How can we compassionately journey with our frail, suffering, lonely brothers and sisters—one person at a time?