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Is it Immoral to Prolong Suffering?

It’s common, in the euthanasia debate, to hear someone make the poplular claim: “it is immoral to prolong a sick person’s suffering and agony”
by Bosco Aguirre | Source: New Woman
The statement seems genuine, and often is met with approval; however, these words leave themselves to various interpretations and are often used with intentional ambiguity. It’s time to clarify their meaning.

What do people want to say when they emphatically claim that it is immoral, unfair, and even cruel to prolong suffering? Their answers can be classified into three main categories: those who oppose unnecessary or ineffective medical intervention; those who would withhold basic medical treatment in order to hasten death; and, finally, those who would justify medical interventions that intentionally provoke, albeit in the least painful way possible, the death of the sick person.

There is a huge ethical difference between these three possible answers. Regarding the first answer, we can say that it is licit to reject medical treatments that offer no hope for curing the patient or improving their condition, and whose only effect would be to uselessly prolong the sick person’s agony. For example, if a person is in the final stages of liver cancer, it makes no sense to continue conducting tests or using equipment that causes the patient great pain and that would simply postpone their death for a few more days or weeks.

The second answer poses serious ethical problems. Basic medical care is just that: basic. A suffering person deserves to be fed, hydrated, cleaned, and to receive pain medication. To say it’s not worth the effort, or is useless, to give this kind of care to someone in the final stages of their illness is to say that that person’s life is of subhuman value, since they are not even worthy of the most basic care each person ought to be given. In other words, it means condemning them to death by starvation, dehydration, pain and, above all, shame from having their most basic needs (not only material ones) neglected and ignored. Perhaps what is most paradoxical is that this kind of horrible death is administered with the justification that it is “immoral to prolong suffering.” Is it, then, more moral to provoke new suffering in order to end the person’s life by killing them slowly?

The third response presupposes that “pain” and “human dignity” are incompatible; hence, ending the life of a suffering person does justice to their dignity; the contrary would be “immoral.” Pain has no moral connotation in and of itself; there is no pain that can lessen a person’s dignity. To claim that keeping a suffering person alive is “immoral,” that they deserve to be eliminated, is equal to saying that suffering has made their life less dignified and less valuable. Such a statement contradicts the efforts of an entire culture, initiated especially by Christianity, that has tried to defend every human being without discrimination. Efforts which have borne fruit over the centuries, not only in the elimination of slavery and other forms of exploitation, but also which have sought to improve the treatment and care of the sick and the elderly.

Euthanasia, understood as the elimination of suffering by the elimination of the person who suffers, is one of the greatest threats and aggressions facing humanity. Accepting the practice of euthanasia means returning to a discriminatory mindset in which the healthy, the strong, the adults, the citizens decide the life or death of those who “don’t make the cut” when it comes to health or quality.

There’s only one way to treat the person who suffers: with tenderness and respect. To accompany the sick in their pain, to ease their physical, psychological and spiritual sufferings, to make them feel they are still part of a society which does not marginalize them, but rather commits itself to serving and caring for them, are all marks of justice, progress and humanism. Even if they must endure suffering for a long period of time, their suffering will have value since it is accompanied by justice, love, and truly human assistance.


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