Hope and euthanasia

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • December 14, 2007

euthanasia.jpgThere may be a large found within the media coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on hope and the holding of the first International Symposium on Euthanasia in Toronto at the beginning of December. The first received paltry, pro forma coverage, the other almost none and the obvious links between the two were scarcely noted.

Yet, if ironic it is also explicable. Society and the media that document society are both striving to be inured to death and, increasingly, dismayed by hope.

The euthanasia symposium was designed to address the increasing social and political appetite for “planned death” which itself envisions ensuring “death with dignity” and that ultimate in newly discovered human rights, “the right to die.” The papal encyclical, Spe Salvi, is intended to counter death of another kind, the death of hope that his Holiness associates with the attack on God that occurs in times of extreme injustice.

The media can’t deal with either very well, possibly because each is too close to our present concerns about what it means to be human. And big questions about what it means to be human are fraught with dilemmas not associated with stories about housing developments, political scandals or winter weather.

Thomas Lynch, the poetic undertaker of Lynchburg, Michigan, and the inspiration for the TV series Six Feet Under, writes frequently about death and how we are changing the ways we greet, meet, grieve and mark this most universally human of realities. One subject he returns to frequently is the desire he witnesses in the baby boomer generation to map out, plan, schedule and pre-arrange all matters of grief, loss, resolution and finality associated with the loss of loved ones. The day-timer, Blackberry, time-shifting society we inhabit seems intent on accommodating death as we accommodate all else — at our own convenience.

There is an eerie confluence between the stories of assisted suicide, legislative plans and philosophical convolutions inherent in the moves to make death clinically available, especially in the cases of people who’ve lived beyond their prime or those deemed incapable of ever living quality lives. They all speak to a desire to make the messy tidy, the burdens less, the trauma manageable. It is a philosophy of the clinical and the emotionless. Equally, the papal reflections on what drives hope from the world is fraught with descriptions of a world intent on order, efficacy, clinical realism about biological laws and scientific formulations. Neither abides a world where human emotion, faith, aspiration and other equally effervescent, though real, truths reside.

So what is the media to do? The simplest concrete fact to be acknowledged is that the media are as much constrained by strong worldviews as societies themselves: easier issues of sensation, scandal, sex and diversion silence hard questions about human value. Equally problematic is the question of language at work in talking about euthanasia and hope and how these concepts are translated into sound bytes of 15 seconds or quotations of 15 words. His Holiness spends 77 pages discussing hope, the conference two days discussing life and death. Neither is easily reducible to a story that fits between plane crashes, jury deliberations or yet another picture from the rehearsals of the Spice Girls once more together. And unfortunately neither translates into a simple story of struggle or conflict, though each speaks to both in volumes.

The media love stories that translate into personal battles. Robert Latimer’s appearance before a parole board, Sue Rodriguez’s hope to end her pain, Richard Dawkins taking on the church and religion. Each has at its heart a personality, a pitched argument and an individual outcome. It’s not so much that they are more important, urgent or interesting as it is that they work well as stories. The struggles that were addressed at the Conference on Euthanasia or are at the heart of Benedict’s ruminations require contemplation, soul-searching, conscience wrestling and ultimately openness to the idea that meaning, value and perspective transcend immediacy, scheduling and order.

In other words the coverage of the two stories wasn’t ironic — it was to be expected.

(Kavanagh is a senior producer at CBC Radio. He recently produced a special show on death for CBC Sunday Edition.)

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