The Canadian province of Quebec has become the latest jurisdiction to pass legislation legalising assisted suicide. Despite some legal ambiguity regarding the relevance of an allegedly contradictory federal Canadian law, it has been celebrated by local lawmakers and euthanasia activists around the globe. Not surprisingly, however, there remain dissentients.
Since Daniel Defoe’s The Political History of the Devil, many a famous rhetorician has uttered confirmation of life’s two inevitabilities: death and taxes. Mortality, in other words, is a reality we must all face – like taxes. Some of us fear our demise whereas others accept the inevitability. In each and every case, however, it is a highly personal matter and experience, perhaps the most personal of all. Why, then, do some feel their public imposition of personal values is justified on this issue?
From my own experience of the debate, most who disagree with laws such as the one passed in Quebec fall into one of two categories. Either they think that euthanasia is immoral, or that it leads to a slippery slope.
I will first address the “immorality” category. Opponents of assisted suicide claim we have a formal “right to life”, as described in the United Nations’ charters of 1948 and 1966, which declared that “all human beings should have a right to life and the protection of it”.
To the untrained eye, this initial declaration seems like the strongest one could possibly propose. However, is “human being” the best term to use here?
Unrecognised by some right to life activists is a great irony: They are quick to demonstrate strong convictions regarding the so-called ‘unnecessary’ deaths of people on their deathbeds, yet are comparatively silent on the many, many more unnecessary and uncontroversial deaths of people living in poverty.
A brain-dead patient in hospital can technically be argued to be a human being, despite most of us accepting that the person themself is dead. If you are reading this, you are likely such a person. A person can think, can interact with their environment, can be self-aware, and aware of themselves existing over time. What is left of someone who is brain-dead who can do none of those things?
It’s truer for us to say that we value personhood, not mere technical membership to our own species. So perhaps we should adopt a less technical interpretation, like that put by Rev Joseph Tham, who wrote, “every person has inherent dignity that should be recognised and respected in any condition of health, infirmity or disability”.
Though this explicitly states that a person has no less or more moral status courtesy of their capacities. This is problematic when a person suffers a severe stroke and loses the mental capacity to communicate, understand their surroundings, have a sense of self or the future, and ultimately are not themselves (as is sometimes said of end-stage dementia patients).
We can also question the notion of whether it is respectful or dignifying to refuse to respect someone’s personal decisions in what is such a personal matter.
As I have written previously regarding euthanasia laws in Australia:
“A ‘right to life’ cannot be meaningful if one cannot exercise that right in ways which make it, in the full sense, a ‘life’. Said differently, what good is a life you don’t have power over? Or one in which you suffer unbearably, hopelessly, and without any or much enjoyment? These might fall under the literal definition of a ‘life’, but to say that they all, irrespective of their features, have the same quality is to deny the factual differences. To further say that individuals must accept what others [like Rev Tham] ascribe to them as the values which constitute a life – or, as is sometimes said, a life worth living – is to say that you know how to live someone’s life better than they do. While we might be able to argue for this in the case of children, how can we reason the same for a fully mature, capable adult of sound mind? Simply, we can’t.”
If we wish to live in truly moral, pluralistic societies in which we accept each others’ personal choices, then we should make those choices legal. We need not all agree with everyone’s personal decisions, but only acknowledge that it is their decision to make.
Unrecognised by some right to life activists is a great irony: They are quick to demonstrate strong convictions regarding the so-called unnecessary deaths of people on their deathbeds, yet are comparatively silent on the many, many more unnecessary and uncontroversial deaths of people living in poverty.
“Every year, an estimated 9.7 million children under the age of five die from largely preventable causes,” UNICEF says. And that’s only counting children under the age of five.
So why are right to life advocates so fixated on euthanasia laws when millions of people are dying around the world from easily treatable and preventable causes?
What’s more, these millions of people will have a much longer life to live – and healthy, full lives at that – compared to those waiting for an end to their suffering in palliative care. If right to life advocates were true to their own beliefs, they would exhibit a far greater interest in helping the millions who die each year from easily preventable causes.
The so-called ‘slippery slope’
Finally, let us examine the so-called “slippery slope” argument. Some opponents of euthanasia and assisted suicide laws argue the acts themselves aren’t necessarily immoral, but that in legalising them, we risk abuses.
However, those who fear a slippery slope should have much more to fear from the informal systems which already exist – where euthanasia and assisted suicide is illegal but still practiced covertly. Without formal regulation or systems in place, anyone who thinks a slippery slope is possible must surely prefer a less slippery, i.e. regulated and open, slope.
That is, if such a slope exists at all. Evidence shows that no slippery slope has developed in jurisdictions like the Netherlands, where euthanasia has been effectively legal for more than two decades. Data from the Netherlands and Belgium shows that the number of patients requesting euthanasia or assisted suicide actually decreased, not increased, after legalisation.
Opposition to voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide laws in Quebec and elsewhere is philosophically and empirically misplaced. If we wish to live in societies which are truly moral and pluralistic, we ought to welcome responsible efforts to legalise personal choices. This doesn’t mean we must agree with every decision, we simply need to respect people’s right to make that decision. Further, as these decisions won’t directly affect us, and we have no need to worry of a slippery slope, we can rest easy and let others rest in peace.
Tom Burns is a Melbourne-based writer who studies bioethics and neuroscience. His work has been featured online and in print in Australia and abroad.