I seldom post so-called “Serious Stuff” here, simply because I don’t have the time in the rush of life. But because I was able to write something that dealt with a serious topic recently, and because I do feel strongly about this issue, I thought I’d post it here.
This is the essay I wrote for my application to Chungdahm Learning in Korea for a teaching position. There were five or six topics, and I chose this.It’s necessarily short and extremely limited because of word count; a brief look at the issue of euthanasia.
#5 Explain and defend your position on euthanasia
Euthanasia is one of the most difficult and complex moral issues of our 21st century society. In an age when medical treatment can both sustain a life far beyond the body shutting down, and deliver death with unparalleled speed and painlessness, what we define as life and death, and the rights involved with both, has grown ever more important.
Post-modernist society is all about the so-called “quality of life.” Yet it is not circumstances or even physical functionality which defines life. The brain of a newborn child can process only the most basic things, yet it can kick, scream, move and cry. The brain of a parapalegic is fully functioning, yet his or her body is often fully paralyzed, unable to move or speak. We cannot pick and choose the physical processes which define “life” –– people in different stages and conditions of life will always possess some of those functionalities and characteristics but not others. Are we to term some of them as “living” but not others?
It is not physical characteristics – a heartbeat, blood flowing, motion etc. – that set apart a human organism as “living”. Instead, I would define life as consciousness – the basic existence of an individual awareness. Whether you choose to call it a soul or a mind or something else, it is this spark which makes a particular human being individual and unique – and thus alive. And that individual life is inherently sacred.
“Quality of life” is the idea that some lives are “better” and therefore more valuable, while other lives are “worse,” and therefore less valuable. This leads quickly to moral acceptance of the killing off of those “less valuable” lives, such as infants with mental disabilities and comatose or constantly suffering patients. Yet such reasoning – that the value of a human life is defined or negated by its characteristics – in its most extreme form is what led the Nazis to exterminate millions of Jews. Basing the value of a human life on the mental or physical characteristics of the person in question is a faulty meter that ignores the intrinsic value of human consciousness.
I define euthanasia as a human life being actively ended by someone else. This stands in contrast to natural death from illness or the effects of old age, which includes death which happens after medical treatment is removed or withdrawn at the request of the patient or the patient’s family. In this case, the treatment is not the cause of the individual’s death – rather the natural course of life is. Moreover, if a person is brain-dead, their body kept alive only by life support, removing that life support cannot be seen as killing – there is no life, no consciousness there. However, if there is any spark of consciousness left, or if they are able to survive without medical technology, then euthanization is simply murder. There is no degree of suffering which makes it less than murder for one human being to deliberately take another’s life.
It is easy to look at circumstances such as suffering, and physical/mental characteristics such as lack of intelligence or mobility, and say that this life is less valuable than others, that death would be better and therefore ending it is alright. But without respect for the fragile spark that is human consciousness, we will gradually become monsters. No individual has a right to die by another’s hand, nor when that happens can it be anything but murder. Life, as I have defined it in this essay, is inherently valuable and must be protected.