"Love Really Can Make Suffering Bearable": Woman with Spina Bifida Grapples with the Answer to "Unbearable Suffering"



Amid the euthanasia and assisted suicide debate, the objection is frequently raised: what about those who suffer what can truly be called "unbearable pain"?

Although euthanasia advocates often mount a compelling "right to die" argument for such cases, two U.K. activists intimately familiar with the depth of physical suffering strongly deny that assisted suicide and euthanasia provide an acceptable answer to pain. Instead, they say, a society that considers suicide a legitimate option deprives sufferers of the support they need the most, and implicitly shuns the power of love to overcome suffering.

Colin Harte, director of the U.K. anti-euthanasia group ALERT, addressed the question of suffering head-on at the Second International Symposium on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide at the National Conference Center in Lansdowne, VA last weekend. The symposium was hosted by Canada's Euthanasia Prevention Coalition. Harte is the full-time caretaker of Alison Davis, the leader of the disability rights group No Less Human, who is disabled.

Davis herself spoke first at the symposium, and battled the growing notion that people with profound disabilities - and even those with "unbearable pain" - are "better off dead."

Davis has suffered all her life from spina bifida, hydrocephalus, emphysema, and multiple other disabilities that have confined her permanently to a wheelchair and cause immense suffering. Frequent doses of morphine, she said, only somewhat alleviate her pain. "I think it's important for us to know that some pain can't be relieved. That's the case for me," she said. "When the pain's at its worst, I can't move, I can't think, I can't speak. Doctors have told me that it will definitely get worse."

Davis said that about twenty years ago, when doctors assured her she didn't have long to live, she developed a "settled wish" to die that lasted for ten years. She attempted to kill herself several times. However, she said she regained her desire to live after a 1995 trip to India where she met disabled children whom she had sponsored, and whom she began to love "overwhelmingly and fiercely." Davis later set up Enable (Working in India), a charity for disabled Indian children.

"Had euthanasia or assisted suicide been legal then, and I'd been killed," said Davis, "I would have missed what actually have been the best years of my life, and nobody would ever have known."

Davis says that people often assume that because she is in a wheelchair, she is in favor of euthanasia. However, she said, openness to such an option is not what individuals who are disabled and in pain really need.

"In my experience, when the pain is bad, what I need is not to be told I'm burdensome and it's my choice whether I want to live or die, and that perhaps I would be better off dead," said Davis. "What I need is to be surrounded by people who tell me, yes, my life does have value, and I'm not burdensome ... they can't take the pain away, but sometimes it's not the pain that hurts the most, it's the fear of being abandoned."

Davis' full-time assistant, Colin Harte, criticized the deep fear of both experiencing and witnessing suffering that he says is behind the euthanasia movement. "In many people's minds, the whole of the debate about euthanasia is fixated on the question of suffering," said Harte.

While advanced palliative care usually means the elimination of severe pain, he said sometimes, as in Davis' case, the question of suffering must be faced head-on.

In examining the modern reaction to "unbearable" suffering, Harte questioned why prisoners of Nazi concentration camps rarely committed suicide - although, he noted, firsthand accounts attest that "the thought of suicide was entertained by nearly everyone in the camps, if only for a brief time."

"Suicide was, in fact, an easy option," said Harte. "Yet in spite of contemplating suicide, very, very few went through with it. Why should this be?" Harte concluded that the main deterrent was the "solidarity in suffering" and "mutual sense of encouragement" among prisoners who collectively rejected suicide as a viable option. Amid such encouragement, he said, a "natural human resilience" emerges in spite of great suffering.

However, said Harte, "once suicide is considered a legitimate option, those words of hope lose their power - because death itself is seen as a means of liberation, the means of satisfaction. Death is regarded as the source of hope."

If assisted suicide had been legal while Alison had given up on life, said Harte, "it would have made my job absolutely impossible." "I would have been regarded as being cruel to her to encourage her to live," he said. "Once you have a law allowing the so-called 'compassionate choice' to die, if you want to emphasize another option which is going to involve suffering, you are suddenly becoming the person who is not compassionate, who is inflicting suffering."

"We live in a ... world today where those who give up the fight are called tenacious, and those who abandon their use of free will by killing themselves somehow achieve an independence. It's madness!" said Harte. "We should be able to say plainly: it's mad. It's absurd."

Contrary to the typical assumption, said Harte, death is not the only means of overcoming unstoppable pain: while Davis' physical pain did not improve after her visit to India, and in many ways has become "much worse," Harte said the children had "provided a particularly powerful motivation for her to persevere."   "And that motivation has another name, a simple name: love," he said.

Harte quoted Holocaust survivor and psychoanalyst Victor Frankl, who said that, amid his suffering: "I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. ... In a position of utter desolation, when a man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way - an honorable way - in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment."

"That profound insight that resulted from Frankl's own intense suffering, which in all probability would not have been realized without that suffering," said Harte. "Love really can, and does make suffering bearable."

"Even though committed euthanasia advocates may deride the idea that there can be any point in suffering, many people would like to be convinced of its value, said Harte. "They would love to be convinced of its value. And I think we alone can show them this value."

Contact: Kathleen Gilbert
Source: LifeSiteNews.com
Publish Date: June 5, 2009
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