Chapter XXI: The Philosophy of Euthanasia

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Use logic to overcome the scruple. (245)

Francois Mauriac

The advocates of physician-assisted suicide, or voluntary euthanasia, present the following argument:

* Hopelessly ill people who in the end will have to die in unbearable pain, wish to be freed from a life that has become a burden to them. They should not be compelled against their will to endure their meaningless suffering. Medical progress can now extend the lives of the gravely ill; in doing so, the doctors are guided by technical considerations, without regard for the human aspect of such interventions. As a result, people are condemned to an unbearable life and to a death unworthy of human beings.

* Another important factor is the aging of the population, the prevalence of disabling infirmities inherent in old age, and the proliferation of nursing homes and institutions for chronically ill residents, who are cut off from their families, isolated from the rest of society, and who have lost faith in the meaning of their lives.

* And let's not forget the terrible scourge of Alzheimer's disease. "Do any of us want to end our lives with the paralyzing fear and anxiety and the complete loss of one's mental faculties? Do any of us want our spouse to spend ten long, lonely years after losing all real contact with a lifetime partner?" asks a proponent of death by own choice. (246)

* Like every important social problem, this one can and should be solved by society. We have achieved freedom of belief and expression. All problems can now be discussed, all taboos can be shaken and outdated dogmas doubted. The old taboo on killing is at odds with compassion and a truly humane attitude. Suffering people desire to put an end to their lives. The rational autonomous beings' right to make such a decision should be recognized as a fundamental human right.

* However, the extremely painful problem of unnecessary human suffering cannot always be solved by the victims' conscious and voluntary decision. By rigidly adhering to the voluntary principle we deprive infants who are severely disabled and people who are demented or comatose of the chance for a painless death. (247) A number of comatose persons are being kept alive by artificial means, at great effort and expense, and to the despair of their families. Caregivers do not dare to make a decision and cut short these lives. But to keep a comatose person alive is also a decision and the one who makes such decision should be obliged to justify it. (248)

* Steps should be taken to avoid errors and abuses. The patient's families should be involved in the decision. The carrying out of euthanasia and assisting patients in suicides must be entrusted to doctors. The conclusion that the patient's condition is hopeless should be confirmed by a committee or at least another doctor. Physicians who carry out euthanasia or assist their patients in committing suicide should proceed with due care.

While appealing to noble emotions, the argument of the proponents of euthanasia also makes a logical, cogent impression. But assertions that entail irreversible consequences for human life must be supported by irrefutable proof. Thus, all elements in the narrative and all assumptions in the reasoning of the advocates of euthanasia, or assisted suicide, ought to be meticulously examined.

The Abolition of All Taboos. The overthrowing of taboos occurs selectively. Perhaps it is worth reflecting on the fact that society offered little resistance in defending the inviolability of human life while still defending with great force the taboo on private property. Not only have we maintained certain old taboos, but we also have created new ones, like the inviolate right of growing and grown children to live their own lives without the restraining intervention of parents and without concern for them. When Dr. P killed her mother at her request in a home for the chronically ill (the Leeuwaarden trial, 1973), she was reproached in a letter to the editor of Time Magazine: "probably taking the mother home would have solved the problem, but this did not occur to Mrs. …