Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Assessing Assisted Suicide: Part 1

Recently, I posted an article on the biblical foundations of the pro-life movement as it relates to abortion. A friend asked me to follow up on that with a discussion on assisted suicide, particularly in regards to the ongoing debate in the United Kingdom, and in reference to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). I love getting questions rather than focusing on my own interests, so I am certainly willing to do it.

There are a number of things to discuss here, so many in fact that I am going to need more than a single post to get through it all. Still, it seems obvious to me where we ought to start. This issue is highly charged when viewed in a vacuum, and it is easy to become aloof from it in an effort to maintain whatever principles we are arguing. We need to make it real so that doesn’t happen. It is essential to know the symptoms of ALS (also known as motor neuron disease or MND) so that we can understand why some of its victims want the right to die. I will say here and now that I do not agree they should have such a right. But it is a Christian obligation to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). We must have compassion for anyone who finds themselves in such unbearable circumstances.

Suffering ALS

While there are a few different forms of ALS, they all share in common the death of motor neurons in the nervous system. These neurons control muscle movement, and the symptoms generally affect voluntary movements first. This is most often initially experienced as weakness in the extremities. But the disease moves quickly to hands that will no longer hold and feet that can no longer walk without falling. Then the muscles in the face stop functioning, resulting in a constant contorted expression.

Things only become more devastating from there. The disease is a source of many different types of pain. It attacks nerves, sending shooting attacks through the body. Also, since the muscles can no longer be used, they atrophy leading to deep muscular pain. Further, as a result of the shrinking tissue, joints are drawn into permanent and painful contraction.

The symptoms are not merely physical, however. While there are rare exceptions such as famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, most people with ALS also lose parts of their cognitive function. This can partly be explained by the constant pain they experience, but it is also a result of the progression of the disease in its assault on the brain itself.

Finally, more involuntary functions begin to fail. Those with ALS lose the ability to swallow, and eventually, the ability to breathe. Feeding and breathing tubes can prolong life, but these are the symptoms that will result in death. Sometimes it occurs within a few months of the onset of the disease. Most often, the affected die in 2–4 years. Rarely, they can survive for decades before succumbing.

On top of everything else, there is the terrible psychological pain in ALS. Currently, the causes of the disease are unknown. As a result, there is no cure. Anyone diagnosed with it is given a guarantee of intense suffering and inevitable death.

How would you feel in such a situation? How would you face the loss of your strength, your independence, and your mind? What would you do in such constant pain, unable to do anything but wait for the last stroke to fall? Is it an existence you would wish on anyone?

We need to have that background in place. While there are many theoretical aspects to this discussion, we have to remember that there are actual people who are actually being affected by this. It cheapens our words and destroys our witness if we attempt to be totally detached.

British Debate

The discussion on assisted suicide currently taking place in Great Britain has (as far as I could tell) mostly to do with Geoff Whaley, an 80-year-old MND sufferer. Whaley was diagnosed with the disease two years ago but was recently told he only had a few months left to live. Rather than endure the worst of the symptoms, he wanted medical professionals to end his life early.

In the UK, however, assisted suicide is still illegal. I have to admit, I was surprised to learn this. It is a rather progressive country, so I did not expect it to have this type of commitment to life (especially in light of the Alfie Evans tragedy, which I will discuss more later). Whaley attempted to challenge the ban in court, as a number of other ALS patients have done. When that failed, he traveled to Switzerland in order to have the procedure there before the disease made travel impossible.

Shortly before his death on February 7, 2019, he delivered a final message to the British government attacking them for refusing to grant him the dignity of controlling his own death. A few days later, his wife also lambasted the government for “robbing” them of their final weeks together.

This is fairly obvious emotional blackmail, and for me, at least, it falls very flat. I am supposed to feel sympathy because you had to kill yourself a little earlier than you would have liked? Timing is hardly an important factor here. Instead, it goes to show the selfishness inherent in the argument for assisted suicide. And therein lies the problem.

Perhaps that is an ungenerous note to end on, but I am out of room. In the next article, I will explain myself by considering the philosophical foundation of the assisted suicide movement.

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