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When Life is Intolerable Print E-mail
By Damiano Rondelli, M.D.   
Thursday, 09 February 2012

As a teenager, I was fascinated by political campaigns. The most fun to watch on TV were the figures of the extreme right or left, who were always fighting. One of these was a member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, Lucio Magri. Magri founded the most popular Italian communist newspaper, Il Manifesto, and never gave up the communist label even when in 1991 the historic Partito Comunista Italiano (Italian communist party) dropped its name for more social-democratic harbors.

Lucio Magri’s name dropped off my radar until a couple of months ago when national and international newspapers reported that, at seventy-nine, this gentleman went to Switzerland to commit – or to be assisted in committing – suicide.

Over decades, his ideals never seemed to flag, though Italian society had strongly rejected Communism. But idealism was not enough when he faced the most human cause of suffering. Three years ago his beloved wife died of cancer. He could not tolerate this loss, and while still active and surrounded by friends and family, his life entered a dead end.

He asked for and obtained a doctor’s permission to stop his pain by being put to sleep – forever. The reaction of friends and former opponents was regretful and sympathetic, and respectful of his record and bright intelligence, for which he was especially known.

But Magri’s story is far from being an isolated case and the clinic near Zurich where he went is doing a brisk business. Moreover, on January 5, a U.K. Commission reported to Parliament that assisted suicide should be legal for terminal patients with less than a year to live.

In my medical practice, I’m sometimes the one to whom cancer patients or their families, who have exhausted the therapeutic options, ask for a last possible cure that does not yet exist. I feel great frustration but offer my time and compassion, and volunteer to be with them and help them live through the remaining time.

They care about having someone with them. This time is, for patient and family or close friends, a supreme experience of love.

Lucio Magri wrote in his last letter that life was no longer tolerable. Suffering becomes the mirror from which our naked humanity cannot hide. In that mirror, the mystery of a whole life is seen and suddenly reveals the urgency of some greater meaning, of an answer that has to be reasonable and at the same time cannot leave anything or anyone out.

When this meaning is not found, someone who refuses the superficiality of our society may indeed come to think life intolerable. From experience, I know that it is not for me or anyone else to judge patients who succumb to disease or families left with painful scars due to the loss of a loved one. God will know all, including second thoughts and requests hidden from us, to weigh what is returned to Him, even in the desperate act of one who voluntarily enters a hospital with a one-way ticket.


         Magri's end.

I find it deeply wrong, however, for a physician who has committed his life to help improve or prolong the lives of patients to turn to an extreme pain-killer such as assisted suicide. To some it might seem an act of help, or even love, for a doctor unable to treat breath-taking pain with any medical procedure. But it is not.

To me, the problem is the same for both Lucio Magri, who ran out of reasons to go on, and for his doctor, who ran out of reasons to oppose to his patient’s will – and even helped him to die. I imagine Magri living his last period of life going to the Chamber of Deputies, writing his last book on the history of communism (The Tailor of Ulm), entertaining his friends and young granddaughter in his apartment in the heart of Rome, but always with a living memory of his wife and what she meant for him.

That memory definitely prevailed over his long-time ideals and hopes for social justice. His wife had truly become a significant other: so significant as to make him decide to forfeit his life, so other that he was lost in remembrance.

Is the hardest physical or psychological pain, when it is resistant to medical intervention, ultimately a good reason for a physician to help someone commit suicide? Isn’t that life already “finished”? Don’t I know that nothing else can be done?

This is where assisted suicide and euthanasia (from Greek: eu-thanos, good death) are seen as merciful human acts. But would terminating someone’s life of misery make me feel better? Absolutely not. In my experience, the mystery of suffering (“Doctor, why me?”) relates to something beyond my medical authority.

It is a living memory that calls forth our acts, regardless of intellectual theories or politically correct public statements. It was a living memory of a real person that led Lucio Magri to his decision. It is a living memory that guides me when I face unfixable or intolerable medical circumstances.

Christ is a living memory, based on stories, challenges, and people that directly changed and keep changing our lives. Euthanasia or assisted suicide cut the thread of living memory when happiness seems to have disappeared due to illnesses, intolerable events, multiple hopeless failures, or any other disastrous scenario that you may imagine.

But that thread was known to Christ. And He took it, lived it fully, and transformed it. He then returned it to us, not with less pain, but with an extension of meaning and hope, here and now.

Lucio Magri planned everything for his last trip. He was buried close to his wife in a small cemetery in Central Italy. He chose Mozart’s Requiem for a very private ceremony. I am not sure why but I like to think that he was still listening to a few lines of the Recordare: “Seeking me thou didst sit down weary, thou didst redeem me, suffering death on the cross. Let not such toil be in vain.”


Damiano Rondelli, MD is professor of medicine and director of the Stem Cell Transplant Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the editor of Storia delle discipline mediche, a history of the medical profession.

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Comments (7)Add Comment
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written by Scotty Ellis, February 09, 2012
I thoroughly enjoyed the article; it was respectful, sympathetic, and non-judgmental towards those who have been driven into despair, traits often lacking in the general critique of euthanasia.

I am opposed to euthanasia on primarily religious grounds, but I must admit that I find it quite difficult to detach myself from sympathy for those who find their lives utterly miserable - who, perhaps like Job, curse the day they were born and are tempted (by themselves or others) to take their own lives. We all have breaking points, and when someone is pushed over such a point, when someone's suffering is so great that death is preferable and no other hope of delivery appears, I find it more difficult to justify why they must continue to endure that suffering.
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written by Emina Melonic, February 09, 2012
Excellent article, Dr. Rondelli. I don't have to even mention that it was well written; one can see the clarity of your mind. Every time I read about someone taking that destructive, nihilistic, and despairing trip to Switzerland, I am sorrowful. I like the fact that in your essay you do not pass judgement on the human being, rather on the act itself. Assisted suicide is a difficult reality indeed; and the despair in the soul of the one who chooses this "profane" path, must be so great. And yet, it diminishes the humanity and dignity to the nothingness of being. Still, even despite these pessimistic statements in my comment, thanks for writing such a piece.
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written by Achilles, February 09, 2012
Dr. Rondelli Excellent article. Very moving yet prudent.


Scotty, I am reading a little book by Joseph Pieper called Scholasticism: Personalities and problems of Medieval Philosophy. Read properly it might help you to organize an understanding of the roots of some of the evident errors you have concerning the relationship between faith and reason. It might surprise you that he goes back to Boethius and to Anselm’s “credo ut intelligam”
Pieper writes:

“Anselm’s idea was that the reasoning human mind can use “compelling reasons” to make understandable the events of Salvation, which are known to us through faith. This , However, expressly does not mean that we accept the truths of faith only because their necessity appeals to our reason; rather, that faith provides the basis by which we can reach understanding of what we believe.”

However, there is no guarantee that reading this will help, because it appears that like most bright young people in academia these days there has been an unhealthy emphasis on rhetoric and the appearances of good rhetoric before logic was properly cultivated which should have followed that most important basic of prudence, grammar. You have in front of you men like Fr. Schall, Dr. Esolen, Dr. Beckwith, and a few excellent commentators like James and Other Joe offering you words of wisdom, but alas, what choice have you made?

Scotty, in your comment you have said “yes and no” not as a Church Doctor would explain a paradox of the Faith, but as a sophist trying to make the worse argument the better.

I wish you well.
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written by Scotty Ellis, February 09, 2012
@Achilles

I am not limited to the sentiments of Anselm. I also am a reader of Peter Abelard, whose book Sic et Non carries with it much of the spirit of my own faith: that of the man who recognizes the logical impossibility of not passing rational judgment on a belief.

At the very least, you might say "I believe x out of submission to the Church." But to even say this, you have had to come to several conclusions rationally: that the Church ought to be followed, for this or that reason: that this or that is the proper interpretation of the Church's teaching: so forth, and so on. It is not really a choice between rationality and faith: their exercise must be simultaneous. To believe without this rational engagement is what I mean by "dogma" in the pejorative sense, and it leaves one quite unable to follow the injunction in I Peter 3 to be ready to give an answer for your beliefs.

I have many men in front of me, even now, in the form of books: Dante, Augustine, Hawkins, Nietzsche, Plato, Kant, Rawls, Stark, Pieper, Abelard, so on and so forth. I have done my best to take the best from each. I am not one to say, "aha! Plato says x! X must be true!" In fact, I can think of nothing more contrary to the spirit of his master, Socrates, who often played games with the interlocutors who agreed with him too readily.

Just because I haven't confined myself to the conservative and quasi-fundamentalist Catholic ghetto hardly means I am unable to learn from what I read!
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written by Tony Esolen, February 09, 2012
There are two problems with the suicide that aren't mentioned here, though I'm sure the good doctor would agree with my assessment. The first is that someone must be implicated in the suicide -- someone must "help," and that very help runs counter to the great call of the doctor, to heal, and to do no harm. The second is that the suicide cuts himself off from his fellow men; it is hard for me to imagine that anyone can lack a reason to live, when the great reason for living can be found behind any door or window -- another human being who needs to be loved.

Dante illustrates the fundamental self-contradiction in suicide in Inferno 13: it involves a separation of oneself from oneself, and a disposal of one's body as if one were God...
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written by digdigby, April 11, 2012
OK. I was shocked to hear of 20 infant euthanasias in the Netherlands. When I studied some of the cases and discovered that these newborns had a particularly severe spina bifada that is 100% fatal and that they suffered EXTREME untreatable pain and were constantly day and night screaming and writhing in agony. Then as a Catholic, I am up against the HARD questions of being the parent of that child. No, its not 'easy'.
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written by Schopenhauer.Pauer, May 06, 2014
I am pleasantly surprised by the compassionate take by catholics on this nihilistic move! Personally, I hate life. I'd rather not be born than have to correct my progenitor's oversight. I fully subscribe to solon and Sophocles' wisdom, Schopenhauer's erudition, and on down the list, it's amazing how commonsense the tragic nature of life is. And we keep doing it to 'loved ones!' And I don't fuzzily anticipate a lifetime of service to humanity because your service to me is as unlikely, and your life is as meaningless. Sometimes I have to go to the kitchen for water then the b athroom for piss in the same 5 minutes. I cant help but wonder just what it was I achieved, as I hold my 'futility' in my hands. it really gets to me and I have to interrupt whatever I'm doing (probably some obligatory drudgery) to do it. I hate being a sack of flesh. If painless death was open to anyone over 25, no questions asked, 6 month confirmation period, I would feel less trapped. now I'm just waiting for the bus. If I didn't have marijuana I would have 'gotten high' enough to jump.

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