I have been in this work since 1993, and during that time I often asked myself the “why now” question, e.g., why now euthanasia? I decided to tackle that question in my biweekly On the Square column. From, “Our Neurotic Fear of Suffering:”
Never in human history has suffering been more readily relieved than today. And yet, paradoxically, we have never been more afraid of suffering. Our forebears would find this very odd. For them, horrendous suffering was ubiquitous, the bane of rich and poor alike . . .
Pain was an integral part of life: If a man suffered appendicitis, he died in agony. If a man contracted bone cancer, he died in agony. If a man became infected with tuberculosis, he died in agony. Then there were the non-terminal illnesses and injuries like gout, carbuncles, migraines, arthritis, and broken limbs. Suffering was the hard price one paid for being alive.
Our triumphs over pain, much to be celebrated, created an unexpected problem:
Ironically, our many medical triumphs and the consequential receding of serious suffering from everyday experience created a concomitant terror of travail that threatens the morality of society. For example, when people actually did die in agony, there was little agitation for euthanasia. Yet today, when writhing demises are entirely preventable — even if it occasionally requires sedation — many support voluntary killing as the best solution to incurable disease and disability.
I get into the “why now” question and quote Yuval Levin’s insight that avoiding suffering has become the primary purpose of society. But that has opened a real can of worms. The drive to eliminate suffering has mutated into license to eliminate the sufferer. I also discuss how the concept of suffering has grown elastic, to include that of family, medical team, and even society.
I get into how our aversion to suffering has also opened the door to exploiting the destitute for their organs, particularly worrying about people who go to China, checkbook in hand, paying for someone else to be murdered that they might avoid organ waiting lists. I conclude:
So, how should society best continue the struggle against “the worst of evils?” Rather than a headlong neurotic flight from pain, it seems to me that we should instead refocus our energies and emphases. By all means, combat suffering — but do so morally, by recommitting ourselves to the higher calling of righteousness and virtue as the “defining ends of human action, and therefore of human societies.”
I plan to think and write about this some more.