Relearn art of dying for a more virtuous society

Dr Chong Siow Ann's recent commentary ("Rage, rage against the (prolonged) dying of the light"; June 20) sparked several letters, mostly arguing for a legalisation of euthanasia or assisted suicide.

Their arguments are similar and can be summed up as follows: First, euthanasia is promulgated as a way to alleviate suffering and burden to others and second, that one should have the right to decide how and when one should die.

While this would lead to greater individual autonomy, it fails to address the fact that our lives are a web of relationships and interactions with others.

Laws such as those prohibiting drug consumption and suicide are present to protect us from harming others and ourselves.

Death may seem good for the individual, yet it removes not only the good of one's life but also the good of one's relationships with others. Furthermore, the practice of euthanasia introduces a utilitarian logic into society that some lives are "not worth living".

We must allay the fears of a dying patient and treat him with the utmost respect, not as a "burden" that takes up our time in busy hospital settings.

With the pressures of limited healthcare resources and rising healthcare costs, such logic will consider the most vulnerable, such as disabled children and frail elderly folk, as lives "not worth living" and thus, to be removed. One might still argue that very strict criteria could be used to prevent this.

The Dutch experience started this way: Doctors were allowed to perform euthanasia only if patients provided clear consent, could prove intolerable suffering and consistent desire to die and more than one doctor was be consulted.

Five years later, large surveys showed that doctors were causing the deaths of over 8,000 patients without their consent.

While we should alleviate suffering - palliative care today is capable of providing adequate pain relief and comfort at the end of life to every patient - as medical professionals and caregivers, we must give more than that.

We must treat our patients as people to be cared for and loved, not objects to be tested on.

We must allay the fears of a dying patient and treat him with the utmost respect, not as a "burden" that takes up our time in busy hospital settings. If we do this, and if society as a whole can relearn the art of dying well, we would become a more compassionate and virtuous society in ways that euthanasia can never hope to achieve.

Colin Ong Eng Choon (Dr )

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2015, with the headline 'Relearn art of dying for a more virtuous society'. Print Edition | Subscribe