I have a problem, and I need some help. Here’s the story.
I have a good, and affectionate, friend who is an Australian lady in her 40s. She is married, with a family. Being a continent or three away from her parents I think that she uses me as a kind of ersatz father figure. Let’s call her Lauren.
This week she raised with me the question of assisted suicide or euthanasia. (She has no particular religious belief.) I quickly realised that her question was not theoretical. Her father has suffered from Alzheimer’s for some time. The effects are growing but he knows enough to be very miserable about it. He is, she thinks, still capable of rational decision. She made no mention of her mother, though I happen to know that the burden is very heavy for her. Lauren’s husband, who is often away on business for long periods, is an admirable man, but dealing with emotional problems is not his strength.
Now my position on these questions is orthodox, so I don’t need to rehearse it here. I can summarise with the old rhyme: “Thou should not kill, but need not strive, officiously to keep alive.” I did of course state my belief, but it cut no ice since she does not come from a faith position. I toyed in my mind with the usual arguments that accepting assisted suicide is open to abuse if the sick or the old are being put under pressure or feel an obligation to remove themselves for the sake of others, but this sounded, even to me, hollow in this case. She loves her father dearly and is entirely motivated by what would be best for him. I thought it wise at the time to move gently on to another subject, rather than say something stupid and unhelpful.
I reflected afterwards that it is easy enough to express opinions in discussing a question like this at a theoretical level. But it is very different reacting to an actual situation when the emotions are highly involved. If I go through the valuable exercise of considering what I would do if the sufferer were a close member of my own family, the answer becomes even harder. Would I stick to my principles and allow the suffering to continue? Would I retain my principles but choose to go against them because I could not bear the alternative? Would I decide, having faced the test, that I could no longer regard the principles as invariably binding? I don’t know the answer to such questions, but the fact that I take them seriously is, in itself, significant.
I feel that I ought to write to her, and say something constructive. But what should I write? I hope you have some suggestions for me.