Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Starting the discussion on Euthanasia: The Difference Between Cows and Humans

Thre is a story in today's Age by oncologist Ranjana Srivastava: "Family's pain multiplied at pointlessly lingering death". It tells the story of a dying 97 year old woman and the way her family dealt with the process of her dying. She fell into a coma and the family expected her to die soon, but she was still alive, still in a coma thirteen days later, and that's where their patience ran out. Except for one daughter who remained with her (out of a sense of duty, it seems), the others all went home and said "tell us when its over". Srivastava describes the following conversation with one of the woman's sons:
Outside the room, I run into her son. A burly man, he is bleary-eyed from having slept in a chair for the past seven nights. He comes straight to the point. ''Doc, this is inhumane. I can tell you that if it was one of my cattle dying like this, I would have shot it, done anything to end its suffering.''

The analogy is a familiar one to many oncologists; although it makes sense on one level, I find it difficult to base my decisions by equating cattle to human.

''Surely, in this modern era, there is something you can do?'' he pleads.

''I assure you that we are doing everything to keep her comfortable and nothing to prolong her life.'' It sounds odd, an apology that says, ''I am sorry your mother won't die.''

It is then, his voice muffled by wads of tissues, that he drives the point home.

''I started off feeling sad for mum. But we had talked about it and I really felt that she was ready to die. She misses dad and all her friends, there is nothing that she longs to do any more, and she just wants to go in peace.

''But here she is, something in her body just not surrendering when her mind is made up. And you know what this does to us as a family? It replaces images of a wonderful and rich life with those of aimless suffering and a drawn-out death.''

I desperately want to help. But this time, for a change, there is no life support to unplug or chemotherapy to stop. It is simply waiting for nature to takes its course.

''Euthanasia is against the law,'' I say gently.

He chokes on his tears. ''I hate myself so much for being angry that mum won't die. I should be sad, but I am not. This is not my mum any more, I want this to end.''

I find myself telling the truth, ''I, too, wish she would die.''

He looks up at me, as if suddenly he has found an ally. ''Doc, I don't know how you guys deal with this stuff. This is painful. I am going home, call me when it's over.''

Srivastava ends her article by saying: "Some days I muse about the slippery slope argument but today would have been a good day to discuss euthanasia."

Well, yes, discuss it by all means. Let's do that. Let's start with the way that this story demonstrates so perfectly the difference between shooting dying cows and euthanasing dying human beings.

We shoot cows to put them out of their misery. We euthanase human beings to put them out of our misery.


At Thursday, September 23, 2010 1:24:00 am , Anonymous Tony said...

It’s time we had a few easy and summary catchphrases to communicate our opposition to euthanasia and the reason for it.

Really? For me this is where the church's commitment to being counter-cultural comes in. Catchphrases are the tools of those who don't like complexity in their lives. I think this is one issue where we should not fall into that trap.

... you seem to assume I have no experience of death and dying ...


The point is that good laws should never be based on the powerful emotional drives and pulls of the “coal face” experience. Some objectivity is required here.

That would be fantastic. I don't see much evidence of it, but I live in hope. I certainly don't see that snappy catchphrases help in that project.

At Thursday, September 23, 2010 1:26:00 am , Anonymous Schütz said...

I do not regard Dr Srivastavas as an "advocate" for euthanasia. It does not appear as if she is, even though that is how The Age has used her writing. However, fuzzy thinking in her article opens the door to dangerous ideas. This must be nipped in the bud. Nevertheless, I have every reason to suppose that Dr Srivastavas is herself a caring and compassionate doctor. We need doctors like her who are caring and compassionate AND (as she has indicated herself to be in her article) law-abiding.

At Thursday, September 23, 2010 2:55:00 am , Anonymous Paul G said...

I was not sure whether it was misusing a cherished memory to share this on a blog, but I don't think so.

Three months ago, I had a very similar experience to the one in this article. My 92 year old Mother spent 2 weeks in hospital before she left this life. She lost consciousness the day after she arrived in hospital, and the doctors told me there was no hope, and she could die in days or up to a fortnight. Apart from 3 nights at home, I was in the hospital 24 hours a day, every day. An operation was out of the question, but my Mother had fluids, some nourishment, and wonderful care from the nurses and doctors, for which I will be eternally grateful.

The blessing was that my Mother regained consciousness for a couple of hours on 3 days in the second week, and we had the chance to talk a little. Relatives and friends were able to come to be with my Mother, and the hospital chaplain, who my Mother would have loved and appreciated, visited her regularly.
It was a distressful time, but my Mother was able to tell me that she was not in pain, and it was a passage that we both had to go through. I did very little for the 2 weeks, and I really felt my life was in God's hands, and any wilful action on my part to change what happened would have been very wrong.

At Thursday, September 23, 2010 2:56:00 am , Anonymous Tony said...

Perhaps by not coming across as 'heartless and pettifogging'?

The way to do that is to treat people with respect and not give in to the easy way out: vilification, catch phrasing and pretending that this issue can be dealt with by demeaning people's emotions.

Even the 'cow/human' perspective in this particular context is flawed.

The first issue is Australian citizens rights to vote on an issue that other citizens have a right to vote on. The Greens may be using this a political strategy to get euthanaisia on the table again, but you don't solve that by saying 'don't give them the vote'.

The second issue is that this is about voluntary euthanasia so reference to a cow just doesn't fit.

At Thursday, September 23, 2010 3:05:00 am , Anonymous Tony said...

I was not sure whether it was misusing a cherished memory to share this on a blog, but I don’t think so.

Neither do I, Paul. I think our personal experiences inform the debate and I don't agree with the sense that I'm getting that they 'cloud objectivity'.

Notwithstanding that, your experience would not have been any different if some sort of voluntary euthanasia was law -- as I understand it -- unless your mother had made a request within the terms of the law.

Even then, you couldn't be compelled to go against your own beliefs.

At Thursday, September 23, 2010 3:56:00 am , Anonymous Gareth said...

Does putting 'voluntary' in front of a word make it any less wrong?

At Thursday, September 23, 2010 3:59:00 am , Anonymous Tony said...


At Thursday, September 23, 2010 4:06:00 am , Anonymous Gareth said...

Further more, I would be interested to hear the criteria for what constitutes 'voluntary'?

Will the Government send out notices asking whether people 'volunteer' or not to be euthanased once they reach a certain physical incapacity?

If 'voluntary' euthanasia become law, would patients have to put notices on their beds stating that they are willing or not to 'volunteer' to be euthanased?

Would a persons willingness to be 'volunteer' to be euthanased be based on hearsay or would they have to sign a legal document?

Will another family member have to make an assessment on their loved ones death beds that they had previously 'volunteered' to be euthanased?

What happens if their are contradictions between a family members decision and the patients previous opinions on whether they 'volunteered' to be euthanased once they reach a certain physical state?

It all seems a bit of a greay area this voluntary euthanasia business.

At Thursday, September 23, 2010 4:17:00 am , Anonymous Schütz said...

The Church's position on Euthanasia is simple, Tony, but not simplistic. And if "catch-phrases" can get our message across, I will use them.

At Thursday, September 23, 2010 4:26:00 am , Anonymous Schütz said...

Thank you for posting this personal story, Paul. That you had those few precious moments is very beautiful. If we act to hasten people's deaths, we cut off possibilities that only God can know of.

At Thursday, September 23, 2010 4:28:00 am , Anonymous Schütz said...

Thank you for sharing our story too, JP.

This is simply wrong. It isn’t a gray area at all.

Tony doesn't agree. He says it is "complicated". What complicates the matter are the emotions involved. The issue is pretty cut and dry in itself.

Part of the problem is that we have elevated personal "feelings" to the point of objective magisterium.

Feelings certainly do make the world a complicated place, but they don't change reality.

At Thursday, September 23, 2010 4:30:00 am , Anonymous Tony said...

You could ask a proponent of the issue Gareth, if you're really interested, or you could look at some example legislation, the WA private members bill for example, or you could just assume you know the answers and it's all 'grey'.

At Thursday, September 23, 2010 9:21:00 am , Anonymous Louise said...

Tony doesn’t agree. He says it is “complicated”. What complicates the matter are the emotions involved. The issue is pretty cut and dry in itself.

Well, it's not an "issue" David, it's a "narrative."

At Thursday, September 23, 2010 9:23:00 am , Anonymous Louise said...

Actually, I think you'll find that most of the ad hominems come from the pro-choice side of the abortion debate.

At Thursday, September 23, 2010 12:04:00 pm , Anonymous Jeff Tan said...

Profound insight there, David. Spot on.


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