The word euthanasia is sometimes referred to as “mercy killing”; that is to say, it is the act of ending a life of one who has no hope of recovery from a terminal and extremely painful illness. It is generally thought of as an act of compassion, though one in most countries that is illegal. The connotation of ending suffering is reflected in the Greek origins of the word eu-thanatos where it meant “an easy or painless death.” Today euthanasia suggests some kind of assistance in the process of death, in order to end suffering. It is something often done for animals but generally remains illegal for human beings.
We all have to die, but none of us wants to end life in perpetual pain and dreadful suffering. But the fact is that some of us will. And if that time comes, and we know that there is no hope of recovery, and all that remains is the long slide to the point of death, then the decision to cut short a life of suffering seems very sensible to many people.
There are two issues involved here: first, should we have the right to decide when, in certain circumstances, we should die, and, second, should a medical practitioner be allowed to assist that death? And since there are many cases in which the patient may be considerably incapacitated, the medical involvement in the issue of euthanasia is crucial.
We live in an age when medical science has done much to reduce suffering in so many areas, not least in the cases where a painful and distressing end of life ensues. But medical science has also created the facilities to prolong life, and in some cases, this may well be for a patient who does not want his or her life prolonged. Then, too, while palliative drugs (drugs used to ease the distress and pain without providing a cure) are more efficient, there are some patients for whom the side effects are unbearable, or for whom pain is still extreme.
To know that one’s life is over, to spend each day and night in terrible pain, to feel hopeless about one’s condition, but to be unable to die, is the epitome of suffering. The dichotomy for the medical practitioner is acute — to save life, or to relieve suffering. It is a moral dichotomy that is situational to the individuals involved.
Those who are in favor of euthanasia believe that it should be one available option for those for whom life is drawing to an end. And while hospice care (residential care for people who are very serious, and often terminally, ill) is the best choice for some, euthanasia might well be the best for others. For many, both options might be felt to be necessary. But whatever scenario one has at the end of life, to know that if it becomes intolerable there is the choice to die, is more likely to stimulate courage in pain and suffering.
Each person has the right to live with dignity and to die with dignity, and when the dignity of life ceases, then the choice of death is, for some, a compassionate option. But as the law stands in most western countries, ending one’s own life is usually suicide, and with assistance from someone else, it is assisted suicide or even murder. In the recent past suicide was considered both a sin and a crime. The Roman Catholic and most Protestant Churches would refuse to bury a person in consecrated ground if he or she had committed suicide, or even to conduct a funeral service, while in some countries the police would always be involved because a crime had been committed. Under British law, in the nineteenth century, the estate of one who had died through suicide was confiscated.
The idea of deciding when it is right to die and of ending one’s own life has a long history of religious and legal antipathy. In religious circles, the same antagonism to both suicide and euthanasia still obtains because of a belief that only the divine should give and take life. And yet, religiously, it seems one can die for a cause but not for one’s own self. Gandhi’s fasts that brought him close to death would have been an act of suicide but were admired by many as a passive means to win political points. Buddhists, too, condemn suicide but have immolated themselves to protest against political injustices.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, suicides such as those of Samson and Saul have been commended, and the mass suicides at Masada in Israel shortly after the time of the fall of the Temple in CE 70 have become a symbol of bravery to all Jews. Christian history, too, is peppered with martyrs for the faith. In Islam, also, sacrificing one’s life in jihad, “holy war,” is acceptable, as anyone familiar with the present Israeli-Arab conflict knows. But suicide for personal reasons is a disgrace, and euthanasia is abhorrent. We can die for a god, but not for ourselves.