Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Playing God

I've long found the push for euthanasia concerning, because it's such a slippery slope. It starts off with high minded discussions about horrible suffering and imminent death, and ends up boiling down to freeing up money and taking burdens of (legitimately) over-burdened caregivers. I guess my views were formed by this joke, which I heard as a child, and included on my blog about a year ago:

In a small Asian village a long time ago, a young boy met up with his father. The father was heading to the river and, on his back, he carried a basket into which he'd packed the boy's aged grandfather. "Father," asked the boy. "Where are you taking grandfather in that basket?" "Shh," said the father. "Grandfather is old and sick. Caring for and feeding him is becoming too difficult and expensive, so I am taking him down to the river to drown him." "That's an excellent idea," replied the boy. "Just remember to bring the basket back, so that I can use it for you when the time comes."
I was reminded of this point when I read Colleen Carroll Campbell's article about the increased reliance on euthanasia in Holland, as well as the unseemly haste to see Haleigh Poutre in her grave. There is no doubt that, in the modern age, we face dilemmas of the type never seen before. In the old days, doctors could do little but give palliative care and, often, their best intentions were more deadly than the diseases they treated. The problem, now, is that we're able to keep alive people who, without medical intervention, would die. This means that we really have two types of euthanasia to consider. The first, and the one that's popular in Holland, is for the doctor actively to kill someone who would survive but for the doctor's action. In other word, doctors are being given license to kill people they no longer deem worthy of living. Mengele did that, and it's a slippering slope no matter how you try to dress it up in pretty language about alleviating suffering. (Speaking of Mengele, I told the story here about a family friend who faced Mengele down and talked herself out of the gas chamber.) The second, and infinitely more troubling type of euthanasia is the one where the doctor withholds treatment from people who will die but for the treatment. In this scenario, is the doctor playing God by giving the treatment in the first place (which prevents the natural death process) or is he playing God by withholding that same treatment? On the one hand, the moment one gives the doctor the power to decide who is worth, you start moving into scary ethical territory. On the other hand, I'm in favor of the "Do Not Resuscitate" requests that people with terminal illnesses make. The process of resuscitation is incredibly brutal and, in people this ill, apparently often futile. That's why I can't come down as entirely opposed to withholding treatment, when imposing treatment would be more dreadful than the alternative.