The proposals of law presented in different European countries to regulate a law of euthanasia seem today a macabre irony, if we observe how these same governments are now fighting with all their forces to prevent people from dying.
With the coronavirus, many things that once seemed important and controversial are now irrelevant. The government presented euthanasia as a new right, an exercise in the autonomy of the patient, afflicted with a serious and incurable illness, which causes him unbearable physical or mental suffering. What is at stake now is whether we will have the means to guarantee the right to be cared for. At this time the patient’s suffering comes from not knowing if he will have a ventilator and a bed in the ICU when he needs them to save his life, and not if there will be someone willing to free him from serious illness with a lethal injection.
Euthanasia has been sold as the answer to a social demand that wants to have this wild card in the face of a hypothetically painful death. But support for euthanasia usually comes from a population in good health who see death as something far away, almost as an old people’s problem. Now, instead, death is seen as an imminent threat to everyone. And what society asks is to ward off that threat with the appropriate therapeutic means. Nobody wants to prevent themselves now against an alleged therapeutic cruelty, but they demand more health personnel, more resources, more care.
Even the elderly population is seen differently. The euthanasia proposals assume that the elderly are deprived of the will to live, afflicted with senility, incapacitating or painful diseases, and that they would see euthanasia as liberation. To such an extent that, if they are no longer in a position to request it, they would do them a favor if the unsolicited euthanasia were agreed between the doctor and the relatives. Now, when the oldest are the preferred victims of the coronavirus and nursing homes have been transformed into dangerous territories, nobody wants to see their elders disappear even if they already have little life expectancy. The idea that euthanasia is a guarantee of a dignified death is laughable in a situation in which many patients are dying alone, without their families being able to fire them, without the collective consolation of a wake and a funeral with family and friends, and with lists waiting for a cremation.
The vulnerability of the sick to a possible tragic end also shows how unreal the supposed autonomy of the terminally ill patient is. Proponents of euthanasia always present it as the thoughtful and rational decision of a subject who exercises his freedom, without pressure or conditioning, who chooses to abandon life in the face of an intimate feeling of unworthiness for the loss of powers. But in an emergency like the current one, when one can be healthy one day and three days later hospitalized in an ICU, the limits of autonomy are quite evident. If one lost his dignity by depending on the care of others, the hospitalized patients should be asked if they do not prefer a «dignified death».
Given the intensity of the pandemic, we have all appreciated the effort and courage of health personnel, who multiply to care for the sick, also exposing themselves to contagion. The patient puts himself in their hands with the confidence that they are going to do everything possible to move him forward, even if one can no longer make decisions. But this confidence would be greatly diminished if, by euthanasia, health personnel could decide whether we are already facing a life that is not worth living. Because it is one thing to limit the therapeutic effort when it is already useless, and another to apply the patient’s own criteria on the conditions of a decent life.
Under normal conditions, the idea of euthanasia appears as an instrument to control the way of dying. But the coronavirus pandemic has revealed our limits in the face of out-of-control mortality. So it may be the opportunity to rethink our attitude towards the end of life, so that the euthanasia bill is the latest victim of the coronavirus.