The Case Against: Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide. (Physician-Assisted Suicide, Pro and Con)

By Somerville, Margaret | Free Inquiry, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

The Case Against: Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide. (Physician-Assisted Suicide, Pro and Con)


Somerville, Margaret, Free Inquiry


EUTHANASIA AND PHYSICIAN-ASSISTED SUICIDE

There are two major reasons to oppose euthanasia. One is based on principle: it is wrong for one human to intentionally kill another (except in justified self-defense, or in the defense of others). The other reason is utilitarian: the harms and risks of legalizing euthanasia, to individuals in general and to society, far outweigh any benefits.

When personal and societal values were largely consistent with each other, and widely shared because they were based on a shared religion, the case against euthanasia was simple: God or the gods (and, therefore, the religion) commanded "Thou shalt not kill." In a secular society especially one that gives priority to intense individualism, the case for euthanasia is simple: Individuals have the right to choose the manner, time, and place of their death. In contrast, in such societies the case against euthanasia is complex.

DEFINITIONS

Definitions are a source of confusion in the euthanasia debate--some of it deliberately engendered by euthanasia advocates to promote their case. (1) Euthanasia is "a deliberate act that causes death undertaken by one person with the primary intention of ending the life of another person, in order to relieve that person's suffering." (2) Euthanasia is not the justified withdrawing or withholding of treatment that results in death. And it is not the provision of pain relief, even if it could or would shorten life, provided the treatment is necessary to relieve the patient's pain or other serious symptoms of physical distress and is given with a primary intention of relieving pain and not of killing the patient.

SECULAR ARGUMENTS AGAINST EUTHANASIA

1. Impact on society. To legalize euthanasia would damage important, foundational societal values and symbols that uphold respect for human life. With euthanasia, how we die cannot be just a private matter of self-determination and personal beliefs, because euthanasia "is an act that requires two people to make it possible and a complicit society to make it acceptable." (3) The prohibition on intentional killing is the cornerstone of law and human relationships, emphasizing our basic equality. (4)

Medicine and the law are the principal institutions that maintain respect for human life in a secular, pluralistic society Legalizing euthanasia would involve--and harm--both of them. In particular, changing the norm that we must not kill each other would seriously damage both institutions' capacity to carry the value of respect for human life.

To legalize euthanasia would be to change the way we understand ourselves, human life, and its meaning. To explain this last point requires painting a much larger picture. We create our values and find meaning in life by buying into a "shared story"--a societal-cultural paradigm. Humans have always focused that story on the two great events of each life, birth and death. Even in a secular society--indeed, more than in a religious one--that story must encompass, create space for, and protect the "human spirit." By the human spirit, I do not mean anything religious (although this concept can accommodate the religious beliefs of those who have them). Rather, I mean the intangible, invisible, immeasurable reality that we need to find meaning in life and to make life worth living--that deeply intuitive sense of relatedness or connectedness to others, the world, and the universe in which we live.

There are two views of human life and, as a consequence, death. One is that we are simply "gene machines." In the words of an Australian politician, when we are past our "best before" or "use by" date, we should be checked out as quickly, cheaply and efficiently as possible. That view favors euthanasia. The other view sees a mystery in human death, because it sees a mystery in human life, a view that does not require any belief in the supernatural.

Euthanasia is a "gene machine" response. …

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