The Buddhist Ethics of Euthanasia

Someone asked me about the Buddhist ethics of euthanasia. In case that’s a new word for you (some of the readers of this page are not native speakers of English), the definition I found online goes, “the painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and painful disease or in an irreversible coma. The practice is illegal in most countries.”

Here is how I answered. 

The “dead friend” in my book Letters to a Dead Friend About Zen was a composite of a few people. It was mainly based on one guy who I knew very well, and there was no question of euthanasia in his case. But I wrote and then cut out an ending for the book based on another person who I did not know very well. He was a close friend of a friend of mine. My friend basically euthanized him (her good friend). His sickness got really, really bad and he was obviously not going to make it. She (my friend) had been a nurse and she told me, “I gave him enough drugs to kill a traveling funk band.” I wanted to use that line in my book.

She had the support of her friend’s family, her friend’s wife, and even the man himself who had spoken to her about the possibility when he was in better health. This happened in a country where what my friend did was totally illegal. But since the family approved of it, no one made any legal complaint.

I thought she did the right thing. At some point it’s the most compassionate choice. Of course, you have to be careful because there are times that people recover unexpectedly. 

I don’t know if Buddhism has anything to say about the matter of euthanasia. I have a vague memory of something I read in which the Buddha might have been talking about this in one of the early sutras. But I’m not really sure. I think, in general, Buddhists want to allow death to happen naturally.

My own teacher, when he as 94 years old and in the hospital with a serious illness refused to allow them to do a procedure that was intended to extend his life. He told his doctor, “I will decide when it is time for me to die.” He died the same day. But the situation was such that, even if they had extended his life by a few more days or weeks, it wouldn’t have been a good life.

On the opposite side, one of my aunts had Huntington’s Disease, the same disease that killed my mother. My aunt was older than my mother and developed the disease between five and ten years before my mother did. My immediate family didn’t have a lot of contact with this aunt and for many years we all had assumed she’d died. A few years after my mom died, we were shocked when we heard that my aunt had passed away. She had apparently been kept alive by machines and things for many years, although she was almost completely unresponsive.

My mom’s doctors had talked to my dad about doing things like that for my mother. He refused to do them. He knew she would not have wanted that. Although my mother died of natural causes — she was not euthanized — she could have been kept alive longer if my dad had agreed to those life-prolonging procedures. But my dad knew that it was more compassionate to allow her to die sooner.

When I worked with mentally handicapped adults in Ohio many years ago, most of the population we dealt with had a reasonably good quality of life in spite of their disabilities. But some of the people we worked with were in such terrible condition that it seemed like an act of cruelty to force them to live on. 

As Jim Morrison said, “No one gets out of here alive.” Nobody survives life. We all die. American society seems to have a much harder time with this concept than just about anywhere else in the world. Maybe it’s because we Americans believe in a philosophy of almost pure materialism. We seem to believe life must be extended as long as possible no matter what.

But dying is not always the worst thing that can happen to a person. Often it’s the best option. 

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