Some Clarity on Euthanasia

I have been buried for a number of months writing The Great Divide, which has to be submitted by the end of April. It’s going well so far.

One of the “Issues” the book dissects is Euthanasia, which I have included because it keeps rearing its head, and because like a number of other issues, this one marks a watershed divide between liberals and conservatives. Claims of individual freedom and autonomy on one side; charges of amorality and killing on the other. This is a brief segment in which I try to explain what the term “euthanasia” means.

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We live in an aging, technologically-advanced, and increasingly secular society in which the lives of the dying can be unnaturally prolonged for a very long time, and the question of whether or not we should be doing this, is controversial. Although we all know with absolute certainty that we will die, we don’t know if we will die naturally, or may want to end our own lives for some reason, or will want to have our life ended by a physician, or may, without our consent, be killed by such a person.

Accordingly, in his ostensibly compassionate age, the topic of euthanasia is once again front and center, and the direction in which it seems to be moving (like so much else discussed in this book) is toward increased liberalization; a gradual relaxation of traditional moral attitudes, prohibitions, and laws against compassionate killing. Hence, the high emotion surrounding yet another Great Divide. Let us start by looking at how we end.

How We Die

The focus here will be on euthanasia, rather than suicide. However, most people who support euthanasia do not really know the difference between these two things in practice.

As it happens, there are only three ways to die, with variations. You can let nature take its course (natural death); or you can kill yourself without help (suicide), or with someone’s help (assisted suicide), as when someone buys you the pills, but you take them yourself, or they help you to the edge of the cliff, but you jump off yourself. Or, you can be killed by someone else with your consent (voluntary euthanasia), or without your consent. For the latter situation a distinction is made between “involuntary,” and “non-voluntary” euthanasia. Involuntary refers to a situation where the person to be killed has the capacity to give consent, but has not done so. Non-voluntary refers to a situation where the person is unable to give consent due to coma or dementia. But whatever the case, “euthanasia” of any kind always means someone else is going to kill you, so in effect euthanasia describes what is otherwise known as homicide, or murder, and in this case where this is legal and performed by a licensed physician, it is professional, State-sanctioned murder. All religions and moral systems have always banned euthanasia, and most societies in history with a few exceptions such as the honor-suicide culture of ancient Rome, and of Japan – and now, the Islamist suicide bombers with whom we are all too familiar — have always banned suicide, and assisted suicide as well, although banning suicide is mostly for the purpose of imbuing society with a respect for life, as it is impossible to punish a suicide.

One further clarification: the person who is going to kill you can do so by an act of commission (called “active” euthanasia) such as by administering a drug overdose or by sedating you then giving a lethal injection, or by taping a garbage bag over your head to suffocate you, and so on; or, by an act of omission (called “passive” euthanasia) such as occurs when you cannot feed yourself and someone decides to stop giving you food and water.

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I hope this will assist readers the next time they feel like debating this topic

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