Jul 02

This year Belgium became the second European state to legalize euthanasia. (Voluntary assisted suicide has been legal in the Netherlands for some time.) There has been a small but steady movement towards legalization in most western democracies. Euthanasia, like abortion, is an issue that touches upon the big questions of life and death, and as such, can generate heated controversy.

Euthanasia is Greek for "a good death" and advocates argue that the individual ought to be empowered to make a quick end at a time of his or her own choosing. This seems to many a humane option. They also argue that legislating against the practise amounts to a state imposition of religious views.

Perhaps, but any possible regulation affecting life and death must be based, explicitly or implicitly, on some metaphysical assumptions. The support for euthanasia comes from those who hold to the materialist assumption that death is indeed the end and that there are no consequences afterward, for decisions made before. It is hard to understand why this set of assumptions ought to be privileged.

Most of the world's religious traditions teach that suicide is wrong, and that the act will have serious negative repercussions in the next life. For a Buddhist, thinking about death and dying cannot be separated from the concepts of karma and rebirth. It is taught that every action of body, speech or mind has results in our experience of the world. It is impossible for death of the body to end this chain of cause-and-effect, so the normal course of things is for the expiring consciousness to re-arise in new circumstances, determined by karma.

An important corollary of this is that the final thought moments of a life are critical for determining the station of rebirth. If the last volitional act was one of self-destruction, this means the mind will die in a very negative state and be pulled into a lower rebirth. Starting from these and like considerations, Buddhist ethical thinking has always been opposed to mercy-killing, even for animals. It is also a reflection of Buddhism's very high valuation of life.

(It needs to be pointed out that there is a difference between passive and active euthanasia. Besides a respect for life, Buddhism teaches an acceptance of reality. We are all going to die. Refusal to face and accept this simple fact means that all too often the dying process is cruelly prolonged.)

The most disturbing aspect of the movement to legalize euthanasia is that it represents part of a general trend away from respecting life. Advocates talk about a death with dignity, but it seems that the real issue is what constitutes "dignity". The proponents of euthanasia base their arguments for legalization on the idea of free choice, but the scary part of a public policy allowing euthanasia is the danger of a slippery slope. No matter how carefully safeguards are built into the system it is inevitable that what starts as a rarely used option will become more and more accepted until it is actually expected. It is not hard to imagine subtle or not-so-subtle pressure being put on the dying to hurry things along for the sake of the family, or even the health-care budget.

The whole "right to die" rhetoric seems sadly misguided. It is a consumer approach to life and death. Life becomes a commodity, and when it is no longer pretty, convenient or even economically useful, then it is to be disposed of like an empty packet of chips. Instead of looking at assisted suicide, we would be better off helping people to die with dignity by putting serious resources into hospices and palliative care.

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