Medicine and life
Euthanasia and Mahatma Gandhi
Mohandas K. Gandhi, commonly known as Mahatma Gandhi was a complex man. Although most associate him with Indian independence only, he was a versatile thinker and was involved in many diverse activities. There is a very interesting paper by Dr Joris Gielen published in the Journal of Medical Ethics which examines Gandhi’s views on assisted suicide and euthanasia.
Gandhi was a life long follower and proponent of “Ahimsa” or “Non-violence” – it was a way of life for him, not only as a means for the Indian freedom struggle. The article explores what Gandhi’s ideal of non-violence would mean in cases of assisted suicide or euthanasia. Although it may sound strange but Gandhi wrote about assisted suicide/euthanasia as people wrote to him seeking his guidance in this regard. Dr Gielen identifies some criteria that Gandhi used to justify euthanasia/assisted suicide –
Gandhi, however added some qualifications to the second criteria – uncontrollable suffering at the end of life. He says very rarely it happens that we can do nothing for a person – there are always a way to reduce the suffering even if it means we are only caring, not curing. The author argues that this makes Gandhi more in favour of palliative care than euthanasia/assisted suicide. In one case Gandhi was against euthanasia – he found the idea of self interest involved. It appears that although Gandhi was in favour of euthanasia/assisted suicide in principle, it was never a real option for him.
Though Gandhi was an important Hindu thinker, Hindu philosophy in general prohibits suicide as it is a means to escape one’s suffering for the bad karma (deeds) accumulated. However, from a Hindu deontological point of view it may be one’s duty to relieve the suffering of others so when the suffering can only be relieved by death, it becomes a duty to do so. It’s all a bit complicated.
I think the author could have shed some light on fast unto deaths undertaken by Gandhi. How does this fits in Gandhi’s philosophy? Obviously there is collective self interest involved (in Gandhi’s case). So were these fasts unto death justified – these were effectively suicides and many did die from fasts unto deaths. So does this add force to the idea that Gandhi was in favour of assisted suicide/euthanasia? Also, if there is no pain involved, consider the recent discussion here about Mr. Nicklinson. Presumably, he is not in uncontrollable pain so what Gandhi would say about his plea to end his life?