It's Time to Stop the Commerce in Death

It's Time to Stop the Commerce in Death

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It's Time to Stop the Commerce in Death

 
One of the symptoms of a society in the grips of moral crisis is a

tendency to refer to reprehensible acts by soft-sounding euphemisms, by

names that do not directly excite human qualms or agitate scruples and

that evade precise reflection on the reality of certain situations. For

example, in our modern lexicon, abortion is called "freedom of choice,"

sexual libertinage is dubbed "alternative lifestyles," and certain

forms of genocide-in-slow-motion can be made to seem more acceptable

under the name "family planning."

 

Such are the mental tricks and the "word magic" employed to quiet the

normal functioning of our consciences. Sadly, they work on a great many

people for long periods of time. Like certain narcotics, they dull the

moral senses and can eventually blot out such feelings completely.

 

This being so, let us examine a concept that is very old, that

disappeared from civilized life for almost two millennia, and that has

now begun its return, lifting itself ever higher on the distant

horizon, like a huge, menacing, black cloud. That concept is known as

euthanasia.

 

"Good Death"

 

The English word euthanasia is derived from the Greek and means,

literally, "good death." According to its oldest meaning, it signifies

merely the relatively painless, gentle passage of someone from this

life to the next, without necessarily any human inference or

intervention.  Even in the Christian tradition, we sometimes hear the

term "good death" used in the sense that the departed person died at

peace with himself, with his family, and with God.

 

However, an alternative definition, more in accord with contemporary

usages, generally suggests something quite different: It indicates the

bringing about of the death of a human being, either by suicide or

killing, ostensibly to prevent extreme physical pain or mental anguish.

Euthanasia, according to the teaching of every traditional Christian

group, is looked upon as suicide or murder, plain and simple, and,

until recently, was universally condemned in all societies whose roots

grew out of Christianity. This teaching holds that a supposedly worthy

end, in this case the termination of pain and suffering, never,

according to traditional moral norms, justifies immoral or unethical

means.

 

With the rise of revolutionary ideologies in the late 18th century,

Darwinistic philosophies in the following century, and the concomitant

decline in fidelity to Christian teaching, especially among educated

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classes, changes in belief regarding the dignity and value of human

life gradually came to be more widely accepted. The full significance

of this change in outlook manifested itself sharply for the first time

almost 60 years ago, in one of the most cultivated nations of Europe -

Germany, the land of Bach, Schiller, Goethe, and Beethoven.

 

Early in September 1939, shortly after the opening shots of what would

become the Second World War, Adolf Hitler held an important conference

with key legal and medical officials of the Reich government. Hitler

had decided that, in view of Germany's desperate need for hospital beds

to accommodate war casualties, a euthanasia program must be undertaken.

The incurably insane, those suffering advanced cases of senility, and

others suffering similar conditions were to be painlessly killed,

opening, in that manner, numerous hospital beds for the war wounded.

 

In response to Hitler's conference, the chief medical officer of

Germany in that era, Dr. Leonardo Conti, immediately began a long

series of discussions with legal, medical, and psychiatric experts to

insure that whatever happened was done in accordance with law.

Characteristically, Hitler quickly became impatient at Conti's delays

and, finally, arbitrarily dictated a secret decree. That document

authorized certain officials to begin at once to "grant those who are

by all human standards incurably ill a merciful death." Census forms,

seemingly for statistical purposes only, were circulated to doctors

requiring that they list data on all persons with certain incurable

mental and physical debilities. Secret panels of medical experts were

then convened to decide who among the patients would live and who would

die. Many thousands, over the next five years, were thus quietly slain.

But there is more to the story.

 

The Church Cries Out

 

Sometime in the middle of 1941, Clemens August Count von Galen, the

Roman Catholic Bishop of Münster, received confidential reports about

what was happening. With great courage, in July of that year, the

Bishop delivered a dramatic, stinging rebuke to the persons responsible

for the euthanasia program, in an open pastoral letter. Some weeks

later he initiated private criminal proceedings in the public courts

against the parties responsible, who at that time were still unknown to

him. This was required, he explained to his flock, by German law. Any

German citizen who had knowledge of a gross violation of criminal law

was bound by that law to report it, and, if necessary, to take action

to bring it to a halt.

 

Hitler, embarrassed by these shocking disclosures, ordered a halt to

the secret euthanasia operation, but the program continued until

February 1945. After the war, medical doctors, and others who initiated

and took part in this program, were prosecuted and tried before Allied

military tribunals, and a number of the more prominent figures were

hanged for their complicity in these crimes. Ordinary Americans, and

other people of the civilized world, were deeply horrified in those

years by the idea of any government sponsoring such ruthless, immoral

policies.

 

It is a profoundly revelatory fact that the wartime German government

was forced to keep this terrible program a secret from the German

public. Such were the sensibilities of the German people in those years

that even a highly authoritarian regime - indeed a police state - dared

not allow the public to become aware of what was happening. Its panic

over the public disclosures by Bishop von Galen demonstrates that even

the Hitler regime, though it exercised total control of the German

press, radio, and all other forms of information dissemination, as well

as the police and all public education, nonetheless felt constrained by

potential outrage from an aroused public.

 

Americans, in contrast, do not live in a police state - at least not

yet. They still pride themselves on their maintenance of a system of

self-government, and on an open society with unfettered speech and

independent communications. Americans also take justifiable pride in

the value they have traditionally placed on human life. Life may be

cheap in other places in the world, among other peoples and under other

governmental systems, but innocent life has traditionally been held

dear, and protected, in America.

 

That remained true until about 25 years ago and the Supreme Court's Roe

v. Wade decision. Until that time, the sacredness of innocent human

life was shielded by law, but more importantly, it was protected by the

innate decency and high moral standards of the American people, by an

ethos set squarely on the solid foundation of 2,000 years of Christian

teaching.

 

Moral Blindness

 

French historian Alexis de Tocqueville referred to these American

attributes when he wrote the following words about the America he

visited in the 19th century: "In the United States the sovereign

authority is religious ... there is no country in the world where the

Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men

than in America, and there can be no greater proof of its usefulness

and of its conformity to human nature than that its influence is

powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the

earth." So it was, and so it remained until liberalism began to eat

away at this wholesome influence.

 

Some Americans of the 1990s, it would seem, have lost moral direction

to such an extent that not only are they not offended by an idea that

did offend and cause shame to Germans living under the Nazi regime in

the 1940s, but they unabashedly lend support to the idea, even in

public forums. Curiously, many of the justificatory pretexts and

rationalizations expressed so frankly today are essentially identical

to those quietly or clandestinely advanced in the Third Reich: that we

have limited resources that should be expended on the healthy and not

the incurably ill; that the incurably sick are a burden on their

families and on society; that it is merciful deliberately to end

suffering by active intervention - murder in other words; that innocent

human life is not a gift from God, but a condition or state of being

the fitness of which is to be judged by medical or governmental

authorities alone, according to strictly pragmatic criteria.

 

One thin barrier separating events of 60 years ago in Germany from the

trends of recent decades is the distinction between voluntary and

involuntary euthanasia. Theoretically, the arguments advanced today aim

towards the legalization of voluntary euthanasia only - that is, to

encouraging the notion that those who suffer physically should be

allowed to request assistance from others (usually medical doctors) in

destroying themselves. In contrast, the German decree dispensed death

primarily to persons incapable of making any such decisions about their

condition or of expressing their wishes at all. While we must admit

that this is indeed a distinction, it is a very tenuous one.

 

Eliminating "Useless Eaters"

 

British writer and philosopher G.K. Chesterton wrote decades ago that

the proponents of euthanasia always begin first by seeking the death of

those who are nuisances to themselves, but inevitably move on to the

next step, seeking death for those who are nuisances to others, once

the first step becomes customary. Let us remember that in a bloated,

bureaucratic welfare state such as ours, where the government assumes a

rapidly expanding role in our lives, where the moral standards have

fallen, and where shrinking resources are stretched ever tighter to

cover perpetually expanding commitments, it is never long before

government is forced to make life and death decisions about "useless

eaters" whose cost of care, in dollars and cents, is quite high.

 

Anyone who surveys the expansion of government power over the past 40

or 50 years cannot doubt that this is true. Whenever government has

stepped into some facet of our lives, assurances have poured forth that

we citizens need not be concerned, that no expansion of power is

contemplated, and that some benefit or largess will be granted free of

strings and without any obnoxious controls. Beneficence is always the

illusory motive, the grabbing of power and the promotion of evil always

the end products.

 

And of all power, the power over the life or death of innocents is the

last one that should ever be willingly entrusted to government. Our own

government usurped some of those powers with the Supreme Court decision

on abortion nearly 25 years ago. Yet if liberals and other champions of

big government have their way, that power will be vastly augmented not

by the will of the people or of their elected representatives, but by

means of another High Court decision.

 

On January 8, 1997, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral

arguments for and against the existence of a constitutionally

guaranteed right of citizens to choose euthanasia, or

physician-assisted suicide.  This case, generated in part by years of

media publicity about people suffering unbearable pain during terminal

illnesses, points to the possibility of a landmark decision, one of

those decisive turning points for the whole nation, as significant as

the rulings about separation of church and state in the '40s, civil

rights in the '50s and '60s, and abortion in the '70s. Like those

baneful edicts of past years, this latest one, should it come to pass,

will herald a dramatic new chapter in American history, one that

further, and calamitously, devaluates life, and that opens new

possibilities for government intrusion into the most intimate aspects

of our lives. These possibilities frighten many people, most especially

persons who are suffering various debilitating diseases and injuries

and who, despite their difficulties, do not want to die.

 

Charles Odom, a 34-year-old resident of Mississippi and former Air

Force officer, was injured in an automobile accident in 1984. He

remained in a coma for three months after the accident and to this day

is severely disabled, requiring the use of a wheel chair to move about.

Though his condition may seem daunting to less intrepid men, Odom

remains fiercely independent of outside help. Charles Odom traveled all

the way from his home to the nation's capital to demonstrate with other

disabled people in front of the Supreme Court building. His blunt

statement to the press about the Supreme Court deliberations is

eloquent in its simplicity: "The worry is that if there's a right to

assisted suicide, it will be used to get rid of us." It is easy to

imagine bureaucrats and politicians scoffing at this fear, but a quick

look at reality shows that it is by no means groundless.

 

"Without Explicit Request"

 

First, as we have seen, what Mr. Odom speaks of is precisely what has

happened in other countries at other times. But we need not go back 60

years to Nazi Germany to find a chilling example. Current practices in

the Netherlands are enough to give pause to any sensible man or woman.

Years ago, the Netherlands changed its laws to permit euthanasia in

certain circumstances. At first, physician-assisted suicide for people

terminally ill was all that was allowed. Quickly, it was extended to

the chronically ill, then to those with psychological afflictions, and

finally to those unable to make such decisions at all. In the cold

euphemism of the Dutch medical profession, the last category is known

as "termination of the patient without explicit request" (suggesting

dishonestly, perhaps, that the patient had somehow implicitly requested

it). It is documented that each year Dutch doctors actively cause or

hasten the deaths of 1,000 patients without the patients' requests.

Guidelines and safeguards set down by the Dutch government to regulate

euthanasia are routinely ignored, without serious repercussions to the

perpetrators.

 

So, it seems, Charles Odom's fears are definitely not without

foundation. In a secular society, driven exclusively by utilitarian

considerations, to proceed from physician-assisted suicides to wholly

involuntary killings of patients is a matter of inescapable logic, as

soon as certain underlying premises are accepted - namely, that

innocent life is not a gift from God and that government and medical

authorities may do whatever they like for the "good of society."

 

We must now briefly consider the problem of people suffering long

periods of extreme pain. That shibboleth is one that must be dealt with

directly, for it is one of the chief weapons of the pro-euthanasia wing

of the death lobby, just as minuscule numbers of pregnancies allegedly

caused by rape and incest are the constant catchwords of the

pro-abortion wing of that same group. As we have noted, much of the

mass media has encouraged the present drift towards

government-sanctioned killings of patients by medical doctors, through

their sensationalistic exploitation of cases involving people with

terminal illnesses who are suffering great pain. Does that mean, as the

media assumes, that there is a close connection between pain and the

wish to die?

 

Destroying a Myth

 

According to Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel, associate professor of medicine

and social medicine at Harvard University, writing in the January 7th

issue of the Wall Street Journal, the connection between intense pain

and euthanasia is a myth, fostered by pro-death pressure groups and the

media. As a rule, Dr. Emanuel observes, it is rarely the patient in

severe pain who seeks euthanasia. "Physical pain," writes Dr. Emanuel,

"plays a very small role in motivating patients' interest in or

requests for euthanasia." Most cancer patients suffering unremitting

pain, for example, were more inclined to see euthanasia as unethical.

Those more likely to seek or approve of physician-assisted suicide are

rather those suffering from psychological factors, most especially

extreme forms of depression.

 

The 1991 Remmelink Report, done in the Netherlands, where

physician-assisted suicide is legal, disclosed that pain was the sole

motivating factor in only five percent of euthanasia cases. Another

study in the same country indicated that pain was the primary rationale

in only 11 percent of euthanasia requests. Thus, the chief

justification for legalizing euthanasia - that it is necessary to end

needless pain and suffering - is really a lie. The vast majority of

people in severe pain do not wish to die. They want life.

 

One cannot be oblivious to the reality of pain, or cold towards any

human suffering. One cannot assuage pain with banalities, for pain is

one of the most formidable facts of life in this world. From a medical

standpoint, tremendous advances have been made in modern pain-relieving

drugs and these help enormously. Various medical miracles mean that

people rarely suffer pain to the extent that they did 100 years ago.

>From a spiritual, Christian standpoint, pain, though exceedingly

unpleasant, nevertheless serves some definite purpose in this

less-than-perfect world of ours.

 

Purpose in Pain

 

The great Christian author C.S. Lewis reminds us that man is a fallen

creature, rebellious and filled with self-will. God reminds us in many

ways that we must be dependent on Him and must restrain the impulse to

"go it alone." One of those ways is through pain. Pain is an evil,

without any question, but it is an evil permitted by God for a specific

purpose. "The human spirit will not even begin to try to surrender

self-will as long as all seems to be well with it," Lewis comments.

Many sorts of evil conceal themselves behind facades of contentment and

pleasure. These, he says, represent "masked evil." But, pain "is

unmasked, unmistakable evil." Lewis writes that "pain is not only

immediately recognizable evil, but evil impossible to ignore. We can

rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities ... but pain

insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures,

speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone

to rouse a deaf world." Man must be roused to the existence of evil, or

else, as Lewis writes, "he is enclosed in an illusion." Pain

demonstrates the existence of evil to an unmistakable degree, to a

degree that no one can disregard. Pain tempers the rebellious human

spirit, reminds us of our dependency on God and of our fragility, and

turns us and our thoughts to the spiritual and the eternal.

 

That is part of a traditional Christian view of pain, and it is an

incontestable truth that this view once buttressed the courage of our

ancestors in the days before modern medicine, and helped them to gather

the strength to cope with the considerable suffering and hardship

around them. The only thing that can save our great nation today is for

all of us to strive to emulate the steadfast faith and courage of our

forebears.

 

Americans of these final years of the 20th century must soundly reject

the twisted propaganda for death - that death can deliver them from

pain and inconvenience. Doubtless, it is sometimes troublesome, and

financially awkward, for some women to carry tiny children within

themselves and to give them that greatest of all gifts that can be

given - life. Sadly, some of them therefore shrug their obligation and

choose death for their offspring, and millions of helpless innocents

die.  Likewise, it is bothersome and burdensome for some families to

care for elders, for the sick, and for the severely disabled, and soon,

they too may choose death for their kin, if our courts and politicians

are allowed further to infringe on powers that belong to God alone.

Millions more will die.

 

Ill-conceived and diabolical schemes by elected officials, and

unconscionable decisions by arrogant judges at all levels in the

federal judiciary, promise to make commerce in death as commonplace as

commerce in cabbages. If that should comes to pass, then our nation

will have taken an irretrievable step on the road to moral catastrophe

and its twin companion, political despotism. We must prevent our

country from taking so fateful a step at all costs, and we must do so

now.

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