A Humanist against Euthanasia

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Over at Spiked is an interesting, secular argument against legalized euthanasia, which, although I disagree with it, is worth looking at for several reasons. The article is a transcript of a speech by Spiked editor Brendan O'Neill, who declares himself to be an atheist.

I would essentialize O'Neill's two major points as follows. Legalized euthanasia would be: (1) bad for the dying because it would depersonalize a very important, private decision; and (2) bad for the living because it cheapens the value of human life. Although I find each point understandable, I think both are ultimately wrong.

Inviting the reader to imagine himself or a loved one facing an "assisted suicide tribunal," or "faceless bureaucrats," or an army of "box-ticking, death-sanctioning lawyers," in the midst of such psychological stress (and, often, weakness or pain), O'Neil claims that legalization makes the mistake of "formali[zing] what for centuries has been an informal, humane practice," and would thus, ultimately, "replace love with law."

First, I am not a medical or legal professional, but I don't see how legalizing assisted suicide would necessarily make it impossible to take the traditional course O'Neill speaks of, if that's what the patient and his family would prefer, and would not mind risking. Second, while I appreciate his concern that such legal provisions might be implemented callously, such provisions are the means by which any question of intent, by the ill or anyone around him, can be put to rest. It doesn't take much imagination at all to conceive of a situation in which an "assisted suicide" is actually a murder or an (actual) assisted suicide is falsely believed to be one.

Were I extremely sick to the point that I wanted to die, it would be a small price to pay even to sit before a tribunal in order to get the peace of mind that would come from knowing that (1) I could end my suffering and (2) my family and caretakers would not become murder suspects upon my demise. (This assumes, of course, that such a tribunal were a merely legal apparatus, and not actually a thinly-disguised means for the state to ration medical care. Read on.)

Second, I think O'Neill's heart is in the right place when he voices the concern that assisted suicide somehow cheapens human life. However, he concedes the very premise that does the cheapening -- that we don't own our own lives -- when he opposes assisted suicide. Voicing opposition to collectivism, however briefly, would be the proper tack.

Quite often today the campaign for the right to die goes hand-in-hand with the idea that there are too many people -- especially old people -- and that society can't cope with them.


The fact remains, however, that only a minority of people in pain choose to end their lives; the majority think life is worth living.
Worth living? To whom? One aspect of end-of-life medical care that state control of medicine has caused lots of us not to think about enough is its expense. (And a consequence is that we do have lots of people with expensive illnesses being cared for at others' expense.) If I haven't gotten insurance or otherwise seen to it that I have ample funds to cover catastrophic medical expenses, I have no right to anything but whatever charity anyone is willing to give. Conversely, catastrophic medical care is not properly the burden of "society." Most people will -- wrongly -- find this last sentence callous, but if my care is not a burden of society, neither is my decision its business. Individualism, often damned by altruists for being uncompassionate, thus proves more humane than altruism because our personal boundaries are not breached by "society" at very private times. More important, if "society" doesn't control access to medical care, there will be far less call for the state to end the lives of the ill for the sake of rationing, but in the name of "compassion."

Only an individualistic society can properly respect or protect the right of a severely ill patient to make a rational decision, based on his own priorities and resources, about whether to end his own life with the help of a medical professional. Assisted suicide may in fact be championed for the wrong reasons by people who do not truly value human life. Nevertheless, the solution is not to disavow the very idea of assisted suicide. Instead, it is to champion respect for the life of individual human beings from cradle to grave. And that requires advocating respect for individual rights, which means, in this context, getting the government out of the business of paying for medical care and getting it to start properly recognizing and protecting the right of every man to end his own life on his own terms.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

Wow, that was one of the most morally disgusting articles I've ever read. Even the philosophically ignorant should be able to grasp on their own the goodness of euthanasia. Secular opposition reveals the New Atheists' view that man is a chunk of flesh with essentially no mind or abstract values.

To them, "life" is nothing more than a beating pulse. They don't like planning and order, which they view as "unnatural". Natural to them is chaos and not having a clue what will happen next.

They deny that a person can enjoy his values more when in full focus, pain-free (or relatively so), and in control if his fate.

Choosing when to die and to do so peacefully and without pain can allow one to better focus on his productive goals (writing, painting, etc.) and enjoy his values more while still alive.

A newly diagnosed cancer patient could rationally choose to live one more great month or several months with full use of their mind and body and then peacefully die with euthanasia rather than try excruciating chemo or go through a slow, depressing loss of abilities and painful organ failure. Or even a healthy elderly person not in pain at all could rationally decide to peacefully end his life with euthanasia while in great health so he can fully enjoy a few months of golf and travel and then peacefully go while avoiding an unplanned, painful, drawn out death.

Gus Van Horn said...

"Secular opposition reveals the New Atheists' view that man is a chunk of flesh with essentially no mind or abstract values."
I had not thought of that angle when I read this piece, but I think you've made an excellent point. Thanks for putting that thought down.