Euthanasia: Some of the questions
Few topics are more significant to the human being than life and death. This is true today no less than in the past, yet the fundamental topics of euthanasia and suicide are, in our estimation, treated too superficially. What is death, what is life: what dies at death, what lives: these fundamental questions need fully to be addressed if suicide and euthanasia are to be intelligently approached.
Yet a particular philosophy dominates the debate at the moment, a certain Epicureanism of ancient date, which has never fully disappeared and which has surfaced more strongly in modern times with the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and the Utilitarians, in which pleasure and pain are the dominant criteria for good and evil. Yet, is Epicureanism dating from the 3rd century BCE the only point of view?
Questions of life and death have long been pondered over by the great religious traditions. The wisdom of the great philosophers and theologians, of prophets and mystics cannot lightly be passed over. The living faiths, which continue to inspire, cannot be simply dismissed as unscientific.
What then is the human being? Is death simply the end? Does a person continue only as an echo of things past or does something essential continue to exist? Is there – however it is understood – some ‘after-life’. Is death simply an end or is it a transition, a process towards re-incarnation or resurrection or metempsychosis? Science hardly understands matter itself and if it can barely say what the human body is now, how can it tell what it will be in the future, in an eternal future? Yet these things have been deeply considered, and profound insights have been reached.
Are pleasure and pain the only dimensions in which we truly live or is there something deeper than these? Is there a self, a soul, which underlies the vicissitudes of life and even of death itself, being in some sense immortal? If so, what is the connection between ‘this-life’ and ‘after-life’, between acts performed in time and the condition outside of time. Is death to be approached with hope or only with a sense of relief from distress? Are one’s last days to be lived only with nostalgia for the past and a grim stoicism before a lasting annihilation?
Is ‘dying with dignity’ something only cosmetic? How best turn death into a valuable step? If life and death are inextricably intertwined, how can the manner of one’s death be a witness to the essence of one’s life? Life is a value, of course, but is there also a value to dying?
What is pain? Is it to be feared? These questions may indeed be asked since women willingly endure the pain of childbirth in order to see an infant in their arms. Athletes do not baulk at a gruelling schedule for the sake of victory and acclaim. What is pleasure? Good food and company are not enough to satisfy the human heart, which has always sought a divine transcendence, however it may be understood. Mystery and the ineffable, wonder and the domain of unending love are more imperative, as the persistence of religion amply shows.
What is the difference between suicide and assisted suicide, euthanasia and murder? At what point should a person refuse medical treatment. Is terminal illness the only situation in which a person may authentically choose death?
Must death be a solitary event or do family and friends also have a part to play? What part? How human weakness and greed be prevented from playing a pernicious role?
How can life be celebrated; how can death be honoured? If the rites of passage and the ceremonies of initiation have always been understood as a sort of dying and rising, can death also be understood as a transition of ultimate value? Or is it as banal as the closing of an account?
These many questions seem not to be considered adequately in the debate over suicide and euthanasia. There will be no easy answers nor even agreed positions. Legislation cannot depend on the answers but neither can it dismiss the questions. However if it is agreed that the process of dying must be a human act and not just something accidental to life, laws must be put in place, which help the process of dying to be undertaken in all its richness. Furthermore, good laws are passed on the basis of sound reflection and not in response to lobby groups or to the shrill clamour of difficult cases.
The time has already come when hard economic and budgetary decisions must be made in choosing the level of care to be given to the sick and the weak. They need to be soundly based if we are not to create a monstrous society. Extreme prudence is required or we shall repent at length.