COVER STORY Cool logic of mercy needed on hot button of euthanasia
by Ray Campbell
News Weekly, June 6, 2015
Euthanasia is sometimes referred to as a “hot button” issue. This refers to the fact that it is an issue that arouses strong feelings and intense argument.
Care is the answer
Unfortunately these two often do not go well together – intense feelings can lead to a clouding of the argument. When one feels strongly about something one tends to make statements as if their truth were self-evident. While acknowledging the strong feelings, it is good to step back and look at what stands behind the statements.
Recently the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference published a pamphlet, “Real care, love and compassion: the alternative to euthanasia”. Part of the aim of the pamphlet was to look at what stands behind some the statements made in favour of euthanasia. The pamphlet refers to six myths. In what follows I will comment on the myths identified and add one more.
One of the most popular arguments put forward in favour of euthanasia is the “autonomy argument”; that is, that everyone should be free to decide when to end their own life. (In the pamphlet it is Myth 3: “Euthanasia is an issue of personal liberty and personal choice”.)
But, since when did we let people do things simply because “it was their choice”? We never allow this kind of freedom to our children, and for good reason. We want our children to learn to use their freedom to make good choices, choices that are directed towards their good and the good of others.
Even as adults, we find our choices are curtailed in various ways for our own good and the good of others (for example, wearing seat belts in cars). Suicide is generally regarded as tragic, and we actually put up physical barriers in some places to discourage people from committing suicide.
Freedom of choice (autonomy) is about freedom for doing good, not freedom to do whatever one likes.
Below the surface of the autonomy argument is the concept that there is such a thing as “a life not worth living”. Pro-euthanasia advocates are telling us that some people can know that a human life is “not worth living”? (This is the kind of sentiment expressed by many people who try to commit suicide. Fortunately they often come to see that they were mistaken.)
What are the criteria for arriving at such a conclusion? If there is such a state, there is no reason to restrict it to those who are able to express that judgement about their own lives. Others should be able to make a similar judgement about those unable to express such a judgement, as happens in places like Belgium where young children can be euthanised. The “autonomy” argument is really camouflage for this dubious value judgement.
How do you judge the value of a person’s life, even our own? We often do not realise the impact our lives have on others, even when we are dependent upon them.
The autonomy argument is also naïve regarding how free people might be when they request to be put to death. The vulnerable are very open to being made to feel that this is what they should do. In a recent letter published in the Times, leading members of the British Medical Association said that one of the reasons most doctors were opposed to legalisation of assisted suicide was that “doctors are aware of the potential for abuse of vulnerable patients and the illusory nature of the ‘safeguards’ in any proposed legislation”.
The first myth referred to in the pamphlet is: Euthanasia can be legislated for safely. The good doctors are aware of how false this is. The House of Lords arrived at a similar conclusion in the 1990s, as did an inquiry in the State of New York. Nothing has changed since these and other bodies delivered their judgements.
This brings me to another myth which is not mentioned in the pamphlet: that opposition to euthanasia is based only on religious arguments.
But there is actually nothing wrong with opposing euthanasia on religious grounds. Why should such grounds not count? Yet, the truth is that many oppose the legalisation of euthanasia on grounds that are not solely religious. Neither the House of Lords nor the State of New York committee are bastions of Catholicism.
People who are entrusted with the care of all citizens, who have no personal objections to euthanasia in itself, have arrived at the conclusion that one cannot safely legislate to allow some people to kill others, even if they request it, nor to allow people to assist them to kill themselves.
In support of the myth that it can be safely legislated we often find what is given as myth 4 in the pamphlet: It has worked well in other places, like the Netherlands and Belgium. The evidence, though, indicates just the opposite. In the Netherlands and Belgium the range of people now “eligible” for euthanasia has widened considerably and in both jurisdictions many cases go unreported.
Some people make the request for euthanasia under the misapprehension that nothing more can be done to ease their situation. (Myth 6: Euthanasia is necessary to relieve pain.) Palliative care workers have found that once they have resolved the problem leading to the making of the request for euthanasia, the request is withdrawn. This happens because someone cared. Many people who request euthanasia do so out of fear. Is killing such people really a dignified death? (Myth 2, Dying with Dignity.)
Much is made of polls showing support for euthanasia. (Myth 5: Euthanasia should be legalised because opinion polls support it.) But these polls are notoriously easy to manipulate by the way one poses the question.
But more than that, perhaps we should be asking why so many people are in favour of deliberately ending someone’s life, even their own. Is it that people cannot find meaning in suffering? Or have they lost a sense of the meaning of life altogether?
Ray Campbell PhD is director of the Queensland Bioethics Centre.