Too many times I’ve heard the horrible words from a veterinarian that there is nothing more that might be done to save a beloved pet who is suffering and near death. The humane thing to do is to euthanize them and end their pain. No matter the circumstances it is a horrible moment wracked with grief and memories of all of the years of companionship and pleasure that the animal has offered so innocently and lovingly. We put our creatures down when they are suffering out of concern but the act of ending their lives does not feel good no matter how many ways that we rationalize it.
Discussions of whether or not to end a human’s life are nothing new. We tell ourselves that executing a criminal may serve as a preventative for even more violence in our society. We rationalize such actions as being for the common good but if someone who has no hope of avoiding imminent death asks us to end their pain with an injection that would quicken the unavoidable we cringe and argue that such action would be murder. We use convoluted definitions of what constitutes a living being to either allow or disallow abortions. Some insist that defending themselves in a war is objectionable while others insist that we would surely live in a state of anarchy without defending ourselves. In other words we waffle in our discomfort of taking a human life. We live with a continuum of beliefs and laws regarding whether or not Socrates should have been given that poison cocktail that ended his life.
While there is a distinct difference between animals and humans there are even those who maintain that we have no right to kill any of the creatures of the earth or even to consume their flesh. Such individuals hold perhaps the clearest views about the rightness or wrongness of taking a life. For them there is no gray area. The rest of us waver between ideas. Therein lies the conflict that we face whenever we discuss taking a life in any way.
When it comes to human lives I am of the mind that it is not our role as humans to take it into our own hands to destroy a fetus in the womb or take part in the death of any living person. Mine is an extreme view that prefers that violent murderers live out their days in prison rather than enduring executions. I question the death and bloodshed of wars. I deny someone the right to end a life out of mercy. Still, I am able to see that there are some circumstances in which defending oneself can only happen if another ends up dead. The conundrum of how to hold life sacred while also protecting ourselves is the stuff of debate through the ages and I’m not convinced that any of us can actually speak with absolute certainty about such things.
I find myself cringing at the thought of assisting someone in ending his/her life even when doctors have conceded that nothing more can be done to save them. I have no problem with the idea of letting nature take its course without interventions but taking active steps to actually cause death seems to be beyond what we have the right to do. Therein lies a difficulty for me. If I cannot do a mercy killing then how can I justify one done as a punishment?
I realize that much of my thinking on this subject is grounded in my own religiosity and that those who do not share my faith see the world through a different lens. They have strong views that assisting someone to end life in a seemingly humane way is as much a loving thing to do as easing the suffering of a beloved pet. For them it is not murder or playing God but instead a profound act of compassion that allows a dying individual to leave this earth with dignity. No matter how many times or ways I hear such arguments I can’t seem to accept them anymore than I am able to agree that the vengeance killing of criminals is acceptable.
Philosophically we humans have discussed life for centuries. We are intrigued by thoughts of when it actually begins and how much power we should exert over it. Not surprisingly there are those who genuinely feel that we should never interfere in the natural course of human existence even for purposes of keeping someone healthy. The extremes that result from our uncertainty about how we should behave are bound to divide us into differing camps. Since it is unlikely that we will ever determine an exact answer to our existential questions I suppose that it is up to each of us to operate within our own consciences and the law.
Was Judas Iscariot damned for all time because of his betrayal of Jesus and subsequent suicide? It would be audacious of us to presume to know the exact answer. Our moral certitude is easy in some instances like knowing that it is indeed wrong to kill another person simply because we wish to do so. In other instances the blur of grayness creates all kinds of questions. Do we kill a mad human who is a danger to others just as we would a mad dog? Should we help someone to die when their pain and suffering is unbearable and death is unquestionably at hand just as we do with our creatures? Is it permissible to defend ourselves with deadly force when not doing so would result in innocents losing their lives? Such questions haunt and divide us.
For the most part we seem to agree that it is not up to us to decide when it is time for another human to die. We respect life and understand that it must go on until it naturally ends even in the face of suffering. Our biggest differences involve the validity of abortions, war, capital punishment and personal protection. I know what I believe but the discussions of others will no doubt continue until the end of time.