Euthanasia consists in voluntarily bringing about the death of an ill or elderly person. It is practised in certain clinics or hospital services without the knowledge of the patients, with ordinary pharmaceutical products but in toxic doses or combinations calculated to cause death. It is therefore a question of deliberate ; calculated homicide. So, it is not a question of alleviating suffering - other treatment or other procedures are possible and even necessary for this purpose.

Why has this situation arisen ? Perhaps, it is precisely fear of death that leads most clearly to programming it. Unfortunately, doctors and nurses are more and more frequently making the decision in this way to hasten the death of patients entrusted to their care ; and they administer these lethal « cocktails ».

Is the anxiety aroused in these doctors and nurses by the closeness of death a justifiable excuse for this homicide ? Do the distress and confused requests of those close to the patient justify a tacit death sentence, in ambiguity and with disregard for ultimate human rights ?

The excuse usually given is that it is a matter of " shortening the suffering " of the person who, in the great majority of cases, is not consulted. Now, there is a radical difference between alleviating pain, a field in which much progress has been made, and giving the same person a lethal drug. It is scandalous that, rather than resorting to these advanced methods of treating pain and also accompanying the person, the problem is done away with by doing away with the patient Is it not true to say that Hitler and the nazis were reproached, and rightly so, for getting rid of incurable patients in the same way ?

Agreement on the part of the family is also given as an argument - impossible in law : indeed, it is hard to imagine a family council gathering to decide on the death of a person that this council is supposed to protect. On the other hand, in practise, there are family members who are, alas, eager to be rid of the patient. Do they have the right 1°) to speak in the name of others, 2°) to order a doctor to kill ?

It is clear that - albeit under the label of euthanasia - it is a crime to precipitate the passage of a person from life to death so as not to look after him any longer, to have his legacy more quickly, to remarry or « to be left in peace ». Is it the duty of the medical team to sink into the horror of a lethal decision with the family members or rather to help them to accompany the dying patient with dignity and with as much attention as possible ? As Doctor Roche put it very well in a lecture on euthanasia on 7 February 1998, organised by the Protestants :

« The vast majority of requests for euthanasia are not repeated if treatment for pain is properly adapted, if the patient feels he is listened to and is considered as being at the centre of the care process, as the one who is really concerned. »

It is easy to see where the possibility for one or several members of a family could lead us to hastening the day of the inheritance by supplying the crime - committed by others - with the label of « euthanasia ».

But it is often true that the medical staff or the nurse put pressure on the family, those round the patient, to suggest to them that the best solution is the potion that causes death. At such a time, what is the real responsibility of relatives already unsettled by the illness of their dear ones, if they hear « the medical profession » suggest that the only solution is to die quickly and quietly ?

In my own family, we were recentlt faced with this type of homicidal decision by the staff of a clinic which had decided to terminate the life of one of my brothers-in-law who was seriously ill, and himself a doctor. A member of the family visiting the patient heard the prescription given by the anesthetist to the nurse. Having a medical background, this person was surprised, not knowing anything like this in medicines. After consulting outside doctors, he learned that it was a mixture causing death in a few hours. Immediately, one of the patient's daughters, a pharmacist, spoke to the nurse. The nurse denied that the prescription was at all dangerous. Now, this daughter, a qualified pharmacist, had the knowledge and sufficient authority to denounce the lie and to oppose the lethal act. Subsequently, the specialist anesthetist and the nurse, to justify themselves, wanted to transform their prescription into a way of consulting the family : on hearing this prescription given in his or her presence, the member of the family would have given his or her consent by remaining silent at the decision to bring about the death of the patient.

In that family, there were 5 medical doctors, one pharmacist and 2 nurses.

What happens when no-one round the patient has either the knowledge or the authority to bring pressure to bear on the medical profession, the nursing team ?


Where is the humanity ?

The French Minister of Health, Bernard Kouchner, himself a medical doctor, has declared that euthanasia « shows a great deal of humanity ».

Where is the humanity ? A doctor responsible for the care of a patient gives him a lethal prescription ? « Humanity » says Dr. Kouchner. A nurse makes life and death decisions for the patients in her care ? « Humanity » in Dr. Kouchner's opinion.

Let's hope for Dr. Kouchner, if he finds himself one day in one of these medical services, that the doctors and nurses don't give him the « Humanity » treatment !


What to do for the terminally ill ?

Professor Glorion, the national president of the order of medical doctors, recalls in a declaration « the progress made in the accompaniment of the terminally ill, the development of palliative care and respect for the professional code of ethics ».

Monsignor de Berranger, the Catholic Bishop of Saint-Denis, in France, declared on 21 September 1998 [*] « Everything must be done to ease pain, and not only with high doses of pain-killers. Palliative care is to be encouraged, the terminally ill have a great need to be supported… Death, today, has become tabou… Where have the families gone, the friends ? »

Doctor K.T.SEVERSON, quoted by Dr. Roche, pointed out that « clinical studies in the United States gave credence to the idea that the thought of assisted suicide in terminally ill patients is linked to poorly controlled pain, loss of control, dependence, loss of dignity. » And he cites four cases : « a woman aged 30, a man aged 50, a married woman of 44 and another aged 36, all expressed the desire, at the outset, for an assisted death ; which desire was never repeated right up till the end. The author attributes this change of attitude , amongst other factors, to the attention and love shown by those close to them and to the efficient presence of the medical team. »


Life after death

There seems to be a paradoxical link between not believing in life after death - eternal life - and the practise of euthanasia.

People are all the more afraid of death when they have no hope. When we believe in heaven, in eternal life, in the happiness promised by God, we try to help the dying person to make the great passage - the Passover.

The death of others leads me to ask questions about my own death. This question is unbearable, it introduces a flaw into the fragile idea of a happiness limited to earthly life. So I have to hide death from the one who is going to die and not see the death of the other, whether it be my father, my wife or my brother. The doctors are there for that.

But the doctors don't want to see death either ; they too are vulnerable. And so, it's a whole plot to say that life has no more meaning ; and that suffering can only be relieved by death. Death that is programmed into the patient's sleep, before closing the door of his room at night.

Would it not be better to refuse this « culture of death » and to seek the paths of Hope ? Alas, Christians are probably not any better than the rest. Yet, in the face of death, they have a witness which opens up the horizon ; their faith in eternal life based on the Resurrection of Christ. ( See Life after death )

Hervé Marie CATTA

* Daily newspaper Le Figaro, 21 September 1998.


Observations of a surgeon

« I accompanied my husband… » (Alzheimer's disease)
Denise LALLICH (Interview with Denis SOLIGNAC in LA FRANCE CATHOLIQUE of 11 September 1998 )

Voluntary companions in palliative care, ASP
René BERBEZY : « What they did for my wife… »
(published in LA FRANCE CATHOLIQUE of 11 September 1998)

In a hospital service,
Treatment of pain and help for the dying.

Doctor NATALI : palliative care in a pneumatology unit
(published in LA FRANCE CATHOLIQUE of 11 September 1998 )


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