Wednesday, May 10, 2006

What's up with the youth in Asia?

So, I got official word yesterday. Turns out it wasn't a bruise after all. The lump on my cat's shoulder, which grew rather than shrinking away, is in fact a serious tumor.

It's serious enough that I very likely am going to have to consider having her put down. She's already clearly in some discomfort, no longer walking on that leg, but you never know... If our cat could talk and understand the situation, would she rather be dead than struggle through pain that is probably slowly increasing day after day? Or is that even a question that should be asked?

One of the hard things for some people to understand is that morality isn't often about what someone wants so much as what is right, independent of desires. I hear it come up in various discussions of numerous moral issues that it would be unloving to not let a person do {fill in the blank} if they really wanted to do it. If my cat really wants to die, does that mean it's right to have her put down?

Of course, for most people, this issue is easier with animals than fellow humans, where the issue nonetheless comes up. What I end up deciding about my cat and her treatment is likely to be largely based on affordability. The vet has suggested that the oncological surgeon would most likely charge over $1,000 for the removal of the tumor, and it's unlikely that I could justify that expense. On the other hand, if it were my wife or one of my kids with the tumor, I wouldn't be deterred by a price tag of $1 million. But what if it was my wife, and she just wanted me to let her go?

This sort of thing enters not just muddied waters morally, but legally. I don't know what the legal status of human euthanasia is here, but there is probably a difference between choosing to not treat a deadly tumor because the patient doesn't want treatment, and giving a cancer patient a lethal dose of pain medication. Generally, the former is not considered murder, while it's much more likely the latter is. But then, whatever individuals think of it, most likely the real issue is that morality trumps legality anyway, even though morality is less often as clear-cut.

Oh it is clear-cut, people will assure you. The value of human life is without measure. You don't have the right to choose who will live and who will die. Maybe, but then, by that standard, perhaps choosing no treatment at all is the only moral choice, since you leave the fate of the person with the tumor entirely in the hands of God, rather than anything else, right? Some people probably actually have this view, but I'd suspect it's a rare one. More likely, people claim that anything that one can do to preserve human life simply must be done, and no price tag is too high. Fight that tumor with everything you can throw at it, and extend the life of the patient in any way possible. Furthermore, of course one should never assume people in comas or folks like Terri Schiavo are actually dead unless their bodies finally refuse to function. And on top of that, of course, no abortions.

But do we really believe that as a society? Do we really think human life has value without limit? Would you do anything you could within your power to avoid letting people die? You know, lots of people die in car crashes every year. Lots and lots of them. Souldn't you stop driving a car? That would also cut down on pollution, which would reduce cancer rates, and now to think of it, utilizing fossil fuels in any way increases pollution as well, so you probably should not do anything that directly or indirectly uses them. After all, you could save a life! No, we as a society place a finite value on human life, and really, we should, because if we're making mental calculations as to the value of our actions, you know that throwing in a value like "infinity" makes things difficult to factor out. What if you have to choose between one life or another? How do you choose that?

Getting back to what started this, there is still a question that I think can be asked. If life (and human life in particular) has such a high value, isn't it possible that we can be dishonoring that value by letting it exist at times? In the case of my cat, her value to herself is the value to run and play and eat and climb into people's laps. To us, her value is our enjoyment of seeing her happy, and letting her be an active part of our lives. If the time comes that she can no longer enjoy these things, and we can no longer bear to see her suffering bringing no joy to anyone, doesn't it cheapen the value of her life as it existed before to let it continue as it is now? I don't know, but it's something that shakes me at times.

Personally, I find euthanasia distasteful, but I wonder if it's what we sometimes conveniently call a "necessary evil". I don't want my cat to die. But I wonder if not only the humane thing to do is to have her put down, but maybe even to do it myself rather than a stranger in a lab coat in a scary place far from home. Does a loved one wasting away on her death bed in pain and suffering have value? Her life essentially over with no hope of recovery, and nothing but pain and loneliness, what value is that? Yes, we as Christians believe there is value in a human soul, but what good does it do the soul to keep it trapped in a decaying body?

Years after my grandmother died after a painful bout with cancer, I heard a rumor that some of my relatives brought it upon themselves to inject her with morphine in her sleep, ensuring she wouldn't wake up to another day of suffering. It shocked me. While I don't know if it's true, I do wonder if it may have been morally right. It's too big of a question for me.

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