Italy's Itch for Euthanasia

Life-and-Death Issue Coming to Fore

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By Father John Flynn

ROME, OCT. 9, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Debate over euthanasia has flared up in Italy following a plea by Piergiorgio Welby to be allowed to die. Welby, a 60-year-old who suffers from muscular dystrophy, sent a video to Italy's president, Giorgio Napolitano.

Welby has suffered from his ailment for many years and is now confined to bed, connected to a machine that helps him to breathe, the newspaper Corriere della Sera reported Sept. 23.

His appeal received wide media coverage and sparked off a national debate over the issue of euthanasia. On Sept. 24 the newspaper La Repubblica reported that Napolitano asked Parliament to look into the issue.

In the days following Welby's appeal a number of groups and political figures declared their support for legal changes to allow some form of euthanasia. For its part the Catholic Church spoke out strongly against any such legalization.

In an interview with La Repubblica on Sept. 25, Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, reminded readers that we cannot put ourselves in God's place by taking our own lives. Our life is a gift from God and must be safeguarded, he said.

The cardinal explained, however, that the Church's opposition to euthanasia does not mean it advocates excessive medical treatment that prolongs life at the cost of undue suffering. Cardinal Lozano Barragán also recommended more attention to palliative treatment, in order to alleviate the sufferings of the terminally ill.

For his part, Bishop Vincenzo Paglia of Terni recommended learning from Christ's experience on the cross. In an interview published Sept. 25 by Corriere della Sera, Bishop Paglia said he was struck by the conjunction of two images in the video sent by Welby: that of the suffering man confined to his bed, and that of a crucifix on the wall of his room. The proximity of the crucifix to Welby reminded the bishop of the words of the Gospel and the presence of Christ.

Bishop Paglia recommended that more love is needed for those, such as Welby, to help them overcome their suffering. This love does not include helping someone to die, the bishop said. Christian love allows us to give our lives to save someone else, but we cannot take the lives of others, he noted.

Desire to live

A reply to Welby's petition also came from Cesare Scoccimarro, a 45-year-old who suffers from a form of sclerosis. According to the Ansa news agency, Scoccimarro declared that in spite of his serious illness, which has confined him to bed since 1998, he wants to continue living.

After learning of Welby's appeal, Scoccimarro, who communicates by means of eye movements, composed a letter to Italy's president. In it he said that in spite of being just as ill as Welby, his desire to live is strong. Scoccimarro added that people in his condition need more help to cope with the severe difficulties they face.

This is a key point raised in a recently published book. In "Eutanasia: Spunti per un dibattito" (Euthanasia: Ideas for a Debate), bioethics teacher Michele Aramini urges, among other things, the need for greater solidarity with the elderly and the sick.

This solidarity includes providing adequate medical attention and palliative cures, but it goes beyond just technical means. Our attitude toward others is also a measure of our level of humanity, Aramini argues. Moreover, illness and suffering also have a moral sense, which we need to recover. For the sick who have the gift of faith we need to help them live their religious values and hopes. And even those without an active faith need to be helped in order to perceive the transcendent character of the human person.

Aramini further argues against the notion that euthanasia is needed to end people's suffering. He says this is often an overly simplistic view of matters. In fact, studies have shown that most elderly people who commit suicide are in relatively good health, or are at least not as ill as they think they are.

As well, those suffering from terminal illnesses, and who want to commit suicide, are often suffering from depression. The solution for these cases is not to allow them to die, but to treat the depression.

So when someone asks to be allowed to commit suicide, Aramini continues, what we need to do is investigate the person's situation in order to identify the causes and provide adequate treatment that will allow them to overcome this desire. From this perspective, accepting the idea of euthanasia doesn't mean offering assistance to someone. Rather, it means refusing to help them cope with their needs.

Learning to cope

On the medical plane these needs include extending the practice of palliative care for patients and providing adequate pain treatment. To help achieve this, doctors and nurses need to be better trained to cope with the needs of the terminally ill and the elderly. Improvements in the communication between medical personnel, patients and their families are also needed.

One argument used by proponents of euthanasia is that of autonomy, that is, the right of each person to choose the moment of his death. But this concept is not so cut and dried, warns Aramini.

For a start, we cannot be sure that a request for euthanasia comes from the deepest will of a person; it might be the result of a passing moment of suffering. The role of doctors and nurses needs to be considered too. Are they to be obliged to help people commit suicide just because someone asks them?

Regarding the question of individual autonomy, Aramini questions whether the death of a person is just a personal matter, or whether society also comes into play. If we accept the existence of a personal "right to die," and even more so of a right to be helped to die, then we run the risk of devaluing human life.

Often a sick person's request to die will be influenced by subjective factors related to his illness. As well, if a "right to die" were to be recognized it would be easier for patients to feel obliged to choose death, influenced by the desire not to be a burden on others. They could also feel pressured not to continue using up valuable hospital beds or other medical resources. If widely accepted, euthanasia could well become a financially attractive alternative to providing expensive treatment.

Aramini goes on to conclude that the legalization of euthanasia would mean accepting a view that makes the concept of human dignity depend on "quality of life."

Such a link undermines the principle of the unconditional value and dignity of each and every person's life, Aramini contends. Damaging this principle in the name of personal autonomy affects society in its very foundations. Therefore, it is wrong to consider euthanasia as a merely personal decision that only affects the individual in question.

Once we lose our respect for the value of human life, then we open up the doors to all sorts of abuses, as has happened in the Netherlands regarding the now-expanding practice of euthanasia, warns Aramini. Compassion for the sick, therefore, doesn't mean unduly hastening their death.