Freedom and the Right to Die. (OP-ED)

Article excerpt

The Netherlands' isolation as the only country in which voluntary euthanasia is legal is about to end. In October 2001 the Belgian senate voted by almost 2-1 to allow doctors to act on a patient's request for assistance in dying. The legislation is expected to pass the lower house shortly That the Netherlands' closest neighbor is likely to be the next country to take this step should provide food for thought among those who have denounced voluntary euthanasia in the Netherlands as rife with abuses. If that were really the case, why would the country that is better placed than all others to know what goes on in the Netherlands--not only because of its geographical proximity; but because most of its people speak Dutch--be ready to copy the Dutch model?

The main source of opposition to legalizing voluntary euthanasia in Belgium is the Christian Democrats, and if they fail to stop it that will be evidence of traditional Christianity's declining influence in that country (Perhaps France, which also shares a common language with part of Belgium's population, and where church attendance has fallen precipitously will be the next to follow suit.) That Roman Catholics, Protestant conservatives, and others from traditional religious backgrounds should be against physicianassisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia is predictable. Such religions tend to be authoritarian and to discourage critical thinking in their followers. When they have the opportunity to dominate a society they prove themselves no friend of freedom.

Starting from the position that God has put us here on earth for a purpose, they see suicide as something like desertion from the military, except that the suicide is disobeying orders from the Supreme Commander. They regard voluntary euthanasia as even worse than suicide, since it involves the intentional killing of an innocent human being. Because the rule against such killing is not to be questioned, the fact that the person killed is suffering from a terminal or incurable illness and wants to die is, in the eyes of the religious, irrelevant.

It is more surprising when those who are not religious, and who profess to support individual freedom, attack proposals to legalize physician-assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia. Nat Hentoff's column in the Winter 2001/02 FREE INQUIRY, "Challenging Singer," is an example of such attacks and serves to show how full of holes they are. Hentoff objected to my views regarding both voluntary and nonvoluntary euthanasia, but here I am concerned only with his opposition to voluntary euthanasia. How can a secular defender of human rights argue against the idea that when and how we die is primarily our own concern, and that, especially (though I would say not only) when we are terminally or incurably ill, we have the right to choose the time and manner of our death?

Hentoff's first objection is that many physicians "are unable to recognize clinical depression, which, when treated successfully, removes the wish for death. …