Britain’s Baroness Mary Warnock has declared that advanced Alzheimer’s or dementia sufferers are a wasteful burden on their families and society. Paul Russell disagrees.
What is the point? A common question, and one, no doubt, most of us have uttered at some time or another. Its common usage does not invite an expansive answer — usually just a sage-like nod in broad agreement. It can be a counsel of futility or frustration.
Recently, a UK baroness, Mary Warnock, contributed to a debate on euthanasia in Belfast. An avid supporter of many issues antithetical to the sanctity of human life, she posed the rhetorical question: “What is the point of the life at the last stages of Alzheimer’s or dementia?”
Clearly, the Baroness sees no point at all. Last September, she also told dementia sufferers: “(Y)ou’re wasting people’s lives — your family’s lives — and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service.”
The ageing Baroness has built a reputation for passionate rhetoric and a frankness that would surely at times make even her supporters blush.
Shocking as her comments above certainly are, there is a deep poignancy here somewhat reminiscent of Pontius Pilate’s “What is truth?” Had she made her question a philosophical one, befitting her training, perhaps this English peer might have found an answer.
It is precisely because there is a point to the suffering of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, that euthanasia is wrong. It is the point of life itself. It’s about the inalienable right to life and dignity of every person. It’s about the profound connection that each and every life has to the Incarnate God that gives meaning to every moment of our existence — the utter beauty of the created hidden in the Creator.
Suffering has meaning precisely because it is part of the human experience. Catholics and many other Christians also understand that suffering holds a spiritual significance. We know that the sufferings we endure well are joined in some mysterious way to the sufferings of Christ.
We “offer up” our trials, often for a specific purpose, in prayer. Ours can be a prayer, like Job’s in the Old Testament, that gives praise to God even in the midst of great trials. This is not an abstraction — it is a reality that many experience daily.
A good friend rang me recently. We’ve been praying for him and supporting him through cancer treatment. His pain has been great and his faith, strong. Just over a major operation, he asked me how my daughter was getting on. She, too, has been suffering under the burden of a debilitating illness.
I can’t begin to explain to you the depth of gratitude and joy my wife and I felt when he said, “You know, I’m offering up my sufferings that your daughter will get well.” What a gift! What faith! What selflessness!
Our world certainly has lost sight of something precious when euthanasia is suggested as a serious answer to the question of suffering. No-one willingly wants to suffer or to see a loved one in anguish. We are right to pray and wish that it were not so.
But when suffering does come as an unavoidable visitor in our “three-score-and-ten” lifespan, there is a divine logic in each of us learning to accept it simply as part of our life’s journey.
People who do bear their sufferings well also help their friends and family to cope. Far from “wasting family’s lives”, it allows them to enter into the process of suffering in a special and dignified way that, even in the event of the person’s death, remains in memory as having been a great privilege.
Yes, Baroness — there is a point.
— Paul Russell is from the Office for Family and Life in the Catholic archdiocese of Adelaide.