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Who decides whether a life is “worthless”

· When 'quality of life' is the sole criterion in judgement ·

The recent case of a doctor, accused of having practised euthanasia on seven of his patients in order to “alleviate their suffering”, has fired up debate again over the enforcement of laws on end of life issues in France. Aside from the seriousness of what took place and after taking into account various interventions by doctors and journalists, this is an opportunity for reflection abroad.

From the testimonies both spoken and written at least two things can be inferred: that awareness of the principles in palliative medicine is lacking and that there is a temptation to think that the value of life depends on the visible characteristics and capacities of the sick or disabled person.

During an interview with Le Monde published on 8 September, an emergency room Physician from a French city said  that frequently the dilemma comes up whether or not to give life support to patients in danger of dying. He added, “we frequently administer morphine to alleviate the patient's suffering”. This, he continued, “most likely shortens their life but at least they die with dignity”.

A statement like that  could mislead since it induces one to think that the patient in question dies from the morphine and not the lack of life support. This confusion arises only if you fail to take into account the advances that have been made in palliative medicine. If one administers the appropriate dose with the intention of lessening the pain and not of killing the person, not only do oppiods not shorten life but could even prolong it by eliminating the physical stress that accompanies suffering. A dignified death is therefore not one caused by a doctor whose design is to shorten the patient's life but one which the sick person goes out to meet with those who, in caring for him,  have the sole objective of alleviating his pain, even through the use of morphine, following the ethical and scientific principles of palliative medicine.

Reported in the columns of a French daily, another doctor, this time from a large hospital in Paris, spoke about the decision not to resuscitate patients struck by acute cerebral vascular attacks and would survive with significant physical and mental deficiencies. He said: “they are conscious in choosing life or death. One wonders if life with such a handicap is worth living, whether death is not to be preferred”. Conscious of the extreme delicacy of the situation and of the trail of suffering which such an event triggers in the life of the patient and his family, we must, however, examine in depth the gravity of statements like these that make the “quality of life” the supreme criterion of the judgement.

The first thought goes out to all those families whose lives and committed service – as Benedict XVI pointed out on 20 August during his visit to Madrid's San Jose Foundation  - “proclaim the greatness to which every human being is called : to show compassion and loving concern to the suffering person, just as God himself did”.

There are so many people who each day – and at the price of untold hardships and being forced to extricate themselves from very complicated and sometimes bureaucratic obstacles -  care for their loved ones,  who, having survived this kind of crisis, are no longer the same and whose lives have become “no longer worth living”. However, we must be very careful not to label too quickly as worthless those who, having survived despite their weakness, can still teach us how to think and even how to live.

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Feb. 22, 2020

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