Friday, January 2, 2009

Euthanasia II

Although the mythological argument is to me the weakest argument against euthanasia it always seems to be the one that gets the most attention. Therefore I will examine it in detail rather than the other arguments against euthanasia. Archbishop Chia, who represents Singapore's 320,000 Catholics (although probably by no means all of them would agree with him), got more coverage for his views on euthanasia in the Straits Times than any other religious leader (3 Nov. 2008). His opinion fairly well represents the general theistic (in this case Christian) position. 'One must not yield to on another person's request for euthanasia. To yield to such a request is false compassion.' 'This is not a matter of life and death. It is not up to you or me to decide.' The former Anglican Bishop Moses Tay pointed out that the whole argument turns on the understanding of who has the right to take away life. 'The moral, and I believe biblical, answer to who has the right to take away life is the one who created it; God Himself. Human beings may be the procreators of life, but they do not actually have the right to take away life.'
As a Buddhist, I have a few problems with this perspective. All monotheistic religions, the Catholic Church and most Protestant churches, have long upheld capital punishment, which seems to contradict the idea that only the deity has the right to take a life. A friend who knows the Bible much better than I informs me that there are 87 offences mentioned in the Bible which God says a person can and should be executed for, some of them extraordinarily minor. One could also ask this question. If it is acceptable to prevent life coming into being (using birth control), to artificially prolong life (using life-support machines), to require people to endanger their lives and take the lives of others (sending soldiers into battle), then why is it wrong to shorten life? It seems that the reproach 'Your playing God' is only used when the question of euthanasia comes up. I find this contradictory.
There is another aspect to the mythological argument that could be examined. According to Christian mythology Jesus gave his life for others. He could have avoided this fate but he willingly chose to be tortured and killed so that his death would allow other to be saved. Many early Christians likewise chose to be killed when it could easily been avoided by simply bowing to an image of the emperor or a non-existent god. Such people were lauded as martyrs and held up as examples. Now there is a difference between courting death or willingly allowing oneself to be killed when there is an alternative, and killing someone else. But there is a similarity between courting death or willingly allowing oneself to be killed and asking to be killed, as in the case of a terminally ill patient. For reasons that are not clear to me the self-killing of martyrs and of Jesus are acceptable but euthanasia and assisted suicide are not.
And of course the other problem with the mythological argument is that not everyone believes in God and even some who do, consider euthanasia to be justifiable. Biblical teachings can and are interpreted in many very different ways. The monotheistic faiths should of course have the right to instruct their followers in what they believe to be moral and immoral, and the followers should have the right to decide for themselves or for their loved ones concerning the issue of euthanasia. But should the monotheistic faiths impose their views on everyone else and should their point of view be the main one taken into account? I do not think they should.
In an article in the Straits Times (24,12,2008), Jennifer Yeo and Madan Mohan highlight the possible dangers of euthanasia and argue against changing the law in Singapore. This article is thoughtfully written and carefully argued - until the last few lines. After mentioning that the late Pope John Paul II followed the example of Jesus by dying in pain and without trying to avoid it, the authors conclude by saying, 'It is at this point, as we enter the spiritual and metaphysical realm, that all debate on euthanasia must stop.' This statement highlights better than I ever could another problem with the God-centered perspective. For the believer, once God has spoken he or she must suspend all debate, inquiry and judgment. It should be of concern that people who think like this have such influence in deciding issues of importance to the general community and in a secular society like Singapore.
But to return to the question above - What can the Buddha's Dhamma bring to the euthanasia debate? I will deal with this question tomorrow.


Vasile Andreica said...

Venerable, I'm sure you will mention the episode of a monk who was so ill and old that he wanted to kill himself (to "use the knife") after having attained arahatship (M, 144 - as I gather from another article about this).

Unknown said...

I really don't mind if the Catholic Church disagrees with euthanasia.As far as I know, no Catholic is forced to accept it for themselves. What irks me is that the Catholic Church tries to impose its rules and ideas on everybody else.