01-01-2007 - Traces, n. 1

What Meaning?

The request to “pull out the plug” stands or falls on the answer that each one gives to this inexorable question. Without an experience of life that is stronger than death, all reasoning and ethical arguments are too little

by Roberto Colombo*

The question of incurable illness and its terminal stages, of such terrible pain that makes people see death as the only desire in a life deprived of all meaning, has slipped into the homes and the public debate of our country, rousing the citizens from the delusion that life depends on the budget, on re-launching the economy or on the taxes we have to pay. All these things are necessary for life, but to discover what life really is and where its value lies, you need something more, something that seems to deny its beauty, its desirability, the taste for work and rest, affections and your closest friendships. Ultimately, the request to switch off the respirator, or for a lethal injection, stands or falls before human reason and freedom faced by the answer that each of us gives to the question “What, after all, makes life worth living?” And when suffering becomes unbearable, then euthanasia, a “sweet death,” makes its appearance on the horizon of the person and of society.

The unreasonable use of clinical arguments
So-called “aggressive medical treatment” is the outcome of a disproportionate, unreasonable use of clinical arguments; at times it leads doctors to resort to futile therapy that does not correspond to the needs and expectations of the patient–therapy that should not have been started and can be discontinued, with the patient’s consent, without resort to any ad hoc legislation. The true question–as it has been recognized in others countries–is that of “assisted suicide,” or of doctors or carers depriving the patient of what he or she needs in order to stay alive, like respirators, re-hydration, artificial feeding etc. Is euthanasia the only answer to the question of the meaning of a life tormented by illness and tied to a hospital bed?
In Bourget’s novel The Meaning of Death, the great surgeon Ortégue, suffering from cancer, considers taking his own life and confides in his wife, “The arguments against suicide have been excogitated by pleasure-lovers who revel in life and want everyone to love it as they do.” Is it not perhaps true that, when faced with someone asking to die, we can only answer by loving life and making people love it by means of a human companionship that revels in life, and that always has a reason for gladness and peace, even in the midst of tears and suffering?

An experience of life
Without an experience of life that is stronger than death, all logical arguments, clinical prognoses or ethical principles fall down. These are all necessary, but not sufficiently convincing. Only the experience of a loving positivity in life (the alternative is nothingness, the denial of every possibility that death is when it is not conceived in function of life) can give us those moral certainties that are more tenacious than mathematical proofs or philosophical syllogisms. It is with these certainties that we must arm ourselves when dealing with someone who sees death as the last word on suffering, the safety exit from life when its inexorable drama seems no longer bearable. Without a grand humanity, a human genius that values and embraces everything because it recognizes in it a loving and loveable Presence, every word offered to someone in pain is fatuous, or, as Shakespeare described it, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”, and all proposed legislation appears like the rules for a game with life that no one wants to play.
We have no clever solutions to lay on the table where the duel between life and death is fought, a duel that has already been fought and won on a Cross two thousand years ago: “Mors ero mors tua!” (Death I shall be your death! Cf. Hos 13:14). Only a Truth inside a friendship with someone who is suffering is the answer to the challenge of euthanasia, the greatest challenge to man’s reason and freedom that has emerged in our society in recent years. A challenge to reason, because it seems to reject the supreme category of reason which is the category of the possible. Whoever asks for euthanasia has closed the door on the hope of an event that can save him from the fear of living. It is a challenge to freedom because in the face of suffering you cannot remain indifferent, you have to decide. It would be intolerable cowardice to turn away from the greatest paradox in life, the paradox of death. We are made for life, not for death, and this is why we want to be companions in life for those who see death as the shadow of a Mystery that hangs over him, but whose kind face he has not yet discovered.
* Director of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics at the Università Cattolica, Milan.