The battle for and against assisted suicide, what used to be called mercy killing, is always fierce and heartfelt. But in the State of Victoria in democratic Australia an act to make it legal for the terminally ill is close to being passed in parliament’s Upper House. And then it will become legal. In some countries it is legal already.
To take the responsibility for ending a life, even your own, is momentous. And there has been plenty of passion around the euthanasia debate, with valuable and compassionate considerations on both sides. These are widely accessible and most likely you will know them. I want to look from a different direction.
Humans have a complicated, conflicted and often irrational attitude towards taking the life of another human being. There’s a universal injunction against it that lies at the heart of who we are, and we believe we have evolved beyond the days of human sacrifice. Yet we are still killing people, and not only illegally. Most nations train a large military force to fight wars and commit legal murder against those considered to be the enemy. Meanwhile in some countries transgressors are punished by executing them in the name of justice. And in the USA for example, where the constitution protects citizens' right to carry weapons, there are millions of potential killers loose in the community. On the other hand, abortion may be denied to a woman because it is killing a baby, yet there is no real consensus about when a foetus gains the ‘right to life’.
A sleep and a forgetting*
So what is human life? And what is a human being? It’s commonplace now to say that we’re nothing more than biological phenomena, with what we call consciousness, our amazing ability to think, feel and create, merely an epiphenomenon of neural activity in the brain. But if we can conceive that we are more than this, there’s a deeper way of understanding how. This is the world view of metaphysics.
We inhabit a body with all its functions. By ‘we’ I mean the soul, which has a higher aspect that connects us with a wider non-physical cosmos of which we are part. This is spirit. The life we have now is part of a continuum. We enter this earth from that other spiritual realm ‘trailing clouds of glory’* as the poet Wordsworth said. But very soon we forget. We are asleep to the source. Our life on earth is all we know.
If we had the inner eyes to see, we would know exactly when a foetus becomes a human being. That is, we would know when the soul enters the developing physical form that will house it. Likewise, we would know when to let go life in this world. Our soul would know, and our spirit would lead us out to its familiar homeland. And, like a plant returning to the earth to which it belongs, so the body would pass into the earth.
A story of two cats
I have been close to people I love in their dying. Yet in a left-field way the death of my two cats brought home the reality of the decisions we make. I’ve had a lifetime of pets that died in high drama, were ‘put down’ or slipped away quietly. Spinney and Blanche had been with Stephen and me for seventeen years. We nursed them as kittens through cat flu; they slept purring on the bed with us; and they were very much part of our family. When our black and white Spinney became ill with a series of strokes, he lost most of his vision first, so that he kept getting lost and I had to find him and ‘talk’ him home. Then he walked in circles. But he recovered, wonky but happy enough. Blanche then got lymphoma. She deteriorated rapidly until one morning I took her choking and wheezing to the vet. He gave her cortisone, but it didn’t help. We euthanise pets when we feel their life isn’t worth living any more. And that’s the decision we made for Blanche.
The simplest way I can describe what happened is to say that she fought for her life while the deadly drug did its job. As I carried her body out, the receptionist commented on my calm strength. Really, I was traumatized. Stephen dug Blanche's grave and I held her in my arms. Rigor mortis had not set in and a gentle breeze whisked her long white fur. She didn’t feel dead. It hit me then: she was telling me that she had resisted because, whatever her extreme situation indicated, she was not ready to die. I was left dealing with my part in her premature exit. Six months later Spinney stopped eating, and then drinking, and I chose differently. I would moisten his mouth with an eye dropper. And then I sat with him for a whole day, until with a last tiny outbreath, he died, naturally.
The soul lives on
Illness and pain are part of our life on earth. The suffering we experience can be terrible, and unbearable for loved ones watching. Still, we have a more evolved consciousness than our pets – we can think rationally and make major decisions about death. But I wonder whether, at this stage of the evolution of our consciousness, many of us have the knowledge and insight to decide when our own life on earth should end, even during its last stages. And then there’s the person, probably a doctor, who must assent to and perform the killing. Our every action, thought and feeling leaves its mark on us. If we take a life, however compassionately, it impacts on our soul because of that universal injunction at the heart of our humanity.
We will die to this body, and we will return to take up another. That’s the essence of evolution on a metaphysical or spiritual level. But our soul remains our soul, and those imprints good and bad will stay with us. It’s called karma. Each life is an opportunity for transformation, to learn and grow. This includes our last life process, dying, It’s an awesome responsibility that we cannot treat too lightly.
* William Wordsworth: Ode, Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood