In her novel The Children of Men, P. D. James imagines a future society in which, among other chilling features, the elderly who have lost the desire to live are sedated and set on barges which are towed out to sea and sunk. No one is coerced into taking this step, at least not officially. It's a voluntary program, run by the state. The government does, however, offer a small remuneration to surviving family members in view of the fact that those who choose death will not be making further demands on public finances.
This particular horrific scenario may not be on the immediate horizon, but James's story does make us consider: Why exactly is such a program wrong? Could we persuasively argue against it? After all, we already live in a society in which suffering is generally regarded as pointless, and that tries to resolve moral questions either by a cost-benefit analysis or an appeal to the sanctity of individual choice. In that context, an appeal to something like the sanctity of life does not carry all that much weight.
Indeed, the question of whether one has the right to choose death is far from hypothetical these days. Dr. Jack Kevorkian, though operating at the margins of medicine and law, continues to assist people in taking their lives and to push for the legalization of euthanasia. The public and the media seem uneasy with Kevorkian himself, but not sure what, if anything, he is doing wrong.
With the recent rulings by two federal appeals courts, which overturned state laws in New York and Washington that prohibited physician-assisted suicide, the "right to die" has been brought into the legal mainstream. In. both cases the judges found a constitutional protection for a patient's decision to ask to be killed. The Supreme Court is likely to take up the matter eventually. If it affirms the line of reasoning taken by the lower courts, we may have a judicially enshrined right to assisted suicide.
As Allen Verhey argues elsewhere in this issue (see "Choosing death: The ethics of assisted suicide," page 716), one of the most disturbing aspects of the lower court actions is the way they have swept aside the moral distinction between allowing someone to die and actively putting someone to death. For the judges, an apparently this distinction is simply splitting hairs: If the aim and the result is death, what difference does it make how it was brought about? The judges do not recognize that it is through distinctions of this sort that we clarify our moral understandings and actions. It is by way of such distinctions that we keep ourselves human. …