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Assisted Suicide: A Death Without Dignity

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After Belgium, who's next?

Elie Wiesel wrote that to live as a man...means to say yes to life -- to fight -- even against the Almighty, for every spark, for every breath of life. This is from a man who survived the death camps of Nazi Germany. He wrote that living includes suffering. Adam and Eve suffered when escorted beyond the gates of the Garden. Their challenge, he said lay in defeating oblivion, not pain.

Brendan Marrocco, 26, a veteran of the Iraqi war, lost both arms and legs in a roadside bombing four years ago. He's the first soldier from the Iraqi war to have survived such traumatic injury.

He learned to live with prosthetic arms and legs. He became the recipient of two donor arms, just before Christmas. He has great plans, including driving his car, swimming and someday competing in a marathon using a handcycle. He's thrilled to get arms. He said you can live well without legs, but having arms opens the world to great possibilities. I watched him on TV. He has a great sense of humour.

Compare Brandon's choices to the twins in Belgium. They asked to be euthanized because they couldn't face the future possibility of not being able to see each other as blindness set in. They had no concern for the sibling and parents they would be leaving behind who would no longer be able to see them. And most recently, Ruth Goodman, took her life while still in great health but "feared becoming dependent."

I recently read The Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust. It's a heart-breaking record of the effect multi-thousands of deaths had on the understanding of death and dying during the American Civil War. I had already developed a strong opinion about "death with dignity." This book moved me further.

I've come to believe we've lost the art of dying well: ars bene moriendi, because we've lost the meaning of a good death. Akheel A Syed, specialist registrar at the British Medical Journal wrote in 2003:

A good death is like the final chapter of a good book: it wraps up the story of 'life' with panache; is physically, emotionally, and spiritually satisfying to the author (the deceased) and the readers (kith and kin); and leaves no loose ends to be explained in a sequel.

Our understanding and discussion of death with dignity, today, would be anathema to the people of the Third World. It would be blasphemous to people whose idea of a death with dignity is one that ends naturally without the intervention of machete or machine gun, or death to ones' children from preventable diseases. We refer to these countries as "developing" while we think of ourselves as the developed world. Well, we have developed.

We are a society bloated with abundance and self-worth. We're self-centred and self-indulgent. It's all about me; my needs, my wants, my desires; a mean-spiritedness that excludes the feelings and emotions of others. I remember reading not too long ago a definition of today's society. It is the "i" generation-iPad, iPod, iPhone, iWant.

We live in a country that provides health care, hospice care and palliative care, the support of doctors, nurses, social workers and chaplains for those facing great health fears: life-threatening surgery, cancers, bacterial infections.

We cannot legally take our lives in the middle of a health crisis, no matter the pain or the fear. We will be forced to endure. But if we are told that we have six months to live, well, that's different. Even if not in pain, death can come not at any time, but on our time. At our convenience. As if death were ever meant to be convenient. Like banking hours.

We want to die on our own terms because of a fear of indignity to the human body. Fear of coma, of a diaper. We want to die while competent, alert, awake, aware, not detached, so that we can say what we want to say when we want to say it. On our own time. Scripted, like a movie. Peter Stockland wrote on the Cardus blog, if we had to end grandma's pain with a pillow over her face, holding her down while she struggled would we? But a pill? Well, that's okay. It's so much more convenient, less messy. It's faster. And one thing we want in this day and age is speed.

I have lost track of the number of times I have heard, "They shoot horses, don't they?" Yes, because they have become a burden to their owners. We don't put down pets only out of love for them; we do it because caring for them becomes too burdensome.

We don't want to put our puppies in diapers or carry them outside four or five times a day -- rain or shine. We "let them go" for selfish reasons, not just compassion. So do we want to treat people like our animals? "Let them go" because they are a burden?

Not too long ago, before anesthetic, pain killers, antibiotics, people fought to stay alive, knowing what was facing them, because for them life was worth the fight. Pain and suffering were worthy opponents. Life, ones own and that of loved ones, had value.

What has happened to us that we deem it normal to enter into discussions about assisted-suicide and euthanasia in our world of luxury? Have we become so entitled, soft, so weak-willed, so whiny and petulant that we cannot even bear the thought of future possible pain that we choose a lethal injection in expectation? Have we come to a place in time that leaving the ones who love us, need us, are not as important as our "dignity"? Have we become that self-serving?

What exactly are we teaching our children? I watched a programme where a mother with cancer decided to end her life before she suffered too much pain. She was leaving her eight-year-old son and husband behind. She had a good-bye party with friends and family. She danced and sang before she drank of the elixir. It was a happy time. Really? She's considered brave for taking her own life while well enough to dance and sing. I wonder how her son really felt. His mother was leaving him. He was eight years old. How will that affect his sense of abandonment and self-worth?

And then there was the story of Gloria Taylor. She was discussing her decision to kill herself with her son and granddaughter. I watched her son cry at the thought of his mother dying, leaving him and his daughter. I listened to her explain her decision to take her own life to her granddaughter. My first thought was: "Who in their right mind takes their own life?" How do we square the idea that we are aghast at suicide, a sign of mental illness,but we encourage assisted-suicide and euthanasia?

Organizations that assist with assisted-suicide have provided anti-anxiety medication prior to the killing dose. It seems people get anxious just before they kill themselves. That should send bells ringing. There should be no sense of anxiety if the person truly wants to end her life. And then there is the bag over the head-filled with helium.

Why do we elevate these people onto a pedestal? Why do we applaud their fear of future pain over unselfish love of family? Are they not, like so many others who choose early death, teaching their families to run from fear or even more importantly, to fear pain and suffering that come with living?

John Paul II recognized the insidious threat inherent in man's attempt to take the role of God into his own hands. From the "right to die," it would be only a matter of time until the old and infirm would have "a duty to die."

Death with dignity is an oxymoron. Dignity is in life. To die with dignity is to face death, boldly, calmly, graciously. A good death is one that honours the life before. Assisted suicide is a vulgar act of cowardice. It diminishes our species. It demeans and disrespects all those who fight each day for survival. It is deserving of the white feather.