Despite the fact that euthanasia is officially practised in only a few countries - Holland shares this dubious distinction with Belgium and the state of Oregon in the United States - the issue is one of increasing importance throughout the Western world. Euthanasia, sometimes called mercy killing, refers to the practice of bringing about the death of a person whose life is judged to be worthless. The protracted death of Terri Schiavo in the United States brought the issue to world attention. Related issues were raised in earlier cases involving Karen Ann Quinlan and Diane Pretty.
The American physician, Jack Kevorkian, has championed the "right to die" cause, and claims to have assisted 130 people to die. He was imprisoned in 1999 for second-degree murder of one of his patients, and is currently serving a sentence of 10 to 25 years.
Other medical practitioners in Australia and overseas have supported legalised euthanasia, lending credence to the widely-held view that euthanasia is practised widely, if not legally, in many Western countries.
Dr Peter Hung's book is therefore a very timely exposition of the issues involved in euthanasia.
This book is essentially the text of his Ph.D. thesis in bioethics from the Alphonsian Academy, a graduate university of moral theology in Rome, conducted by the Redemptorists.
The book's structure makes it a valuable reference on this complex subject, as the author offers a systematic analysis of the issues, showing the differences between euthanasia and assisted suicide, beginning with its historical background, which he traces back to Ancient Greece and Rome.
Emergence of Christianity
Dr Hung shows how the great ancient philosophers - including Plato, Socrates and the Stoics - believed that there was nothing wrong with ending a life which had become unendurable. He quotes the Roman philosopher, Seneca, at about the time of Christ: "Against all the injuries of life I have the refuge of death. If I can choose between a death of torture and one that is simple and easy, why should I not select the latter?"
All this changed with the emergence of Christianity, which viewed human life itself as precious and having intrinsic value, and followed the Jewish conception of man being made in the image and likeness of God. Christianity, like Judaism, rejected the deliberate taking of life.
In the Christian world, euthanasia was seen as a form of homicide if conducted on a person without consent, or suicide if the person sought it.
This continued down the centuries until about 100 years ago, when utilitarian ideas re-emerged in the Western world. As man was increasingly seen as having value in accordance with his contribution to society, it became easier to justify mercy killing, particularly for the old, the acutely ill, or those with serious physical or intellectual disabilities.
The culmination of this process was reached in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s when large numbers of people were killed because they were regarded as socially worthless, or because they were Jews or gypsies.
The Nazi experience inoculated society against this philosophy for a generation after the war, but the rise of utilitarianism, the collapse of religious belief and practice, and even the soaring cost of medical care, forced the issue back onto the agenda where it remains to this day.
Dr Hung sets out the pro-euthanasia arguments comprehensively and with genuine understanding. He then puts forward the anti-euthanasia arguments, again clearly and comprehensively.
He then looks at these arguments in detail examining, for example, whether the "right to die" really exists, and whether relief of unbearable suffering makes killing morally permissible.
He subjects the anti-euthanasia arguments to the same powerful critique, asking whether there is a moral equivalence between mercy killing and letting a person die, and when nutrition and hydration should be continued to a dying patient, and when nutrition and hydration need not be continued.
To me, the most interesting part of the book was the final chapter, in which the author examines the current euthanasia debate from a Catholic perspective. He persuasively argues that a religious perspective, based on both Scripture and tradition, is entirely valid.
Following the approach of John Paul II, he also argues that faith is consonant with reason, and shows how protecting the life of every one of us serves the ultimate good of society, however difficult it might appear to be in particular cases.
This is an extremely valuable book, with the highest recommendations from medical practitioners involved in the care of the dying, and a foreword by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney.
As a result of the generous endorsement of the Knights of the Southern Cross in Perth, it is available at an extremely attractive price. I thoroughly recommend it.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 19 No 8 (September 2006), p. 17
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