On Euthanasia

George Felis wrote such an elegant and apposite comment in reply to another commenter that I wanted to put it on the main page.

You apparently missed the word “voluntary.” You typed out the word, but then you talked about doctors and relatives instead of focusing on the choices available (or denied) to suffering people – and not necessarily just the elderly. (I will simply ignore your instant degeneration into Nazi comparisons, which in reasoned argument is always the first resort of a scoundrel.) Have you actually read anything about the specific proposed law? Or are you opposing it on general principle and your vague suspicions about doctors’ and relatives’ nefarious “utilitarian” motives? Because the actual bill being proposed by Joffe is very clear about specifics like multiple explicit consent decrees, and has a mental health clause as well. The proposed law makes euthanasia genuinely voluntary, and a nearly identical law has worked very well in Oregon with absolutely NO evidence of any of the horrible consequences that slippery-slopers always predict (with confidence inversely proportional to their actual evidence).

In fact, Oregon ranks very high (if not highest) among U.S. states in terms of number and quality of palliative care facilities, the very opposite of what opponents to voluntary euthanasia always predict. The failure of euthanasia opponents’ slippery slope scenarios is unsuprising, because their fears about life becoming “de-valued” are predicated on a warped view of what constitutes valuing life in the first place. To value life simply is to think that no one should suffer needlessly, and to think that everyone has a basic right to self-determination (among other things). To insist that valuing life requires the preservation of life no matter what – without regard to the choices of the person whose life it is, without regard to their suffering – ignores freedom and happiness, which are surely chief amongst those things which give human life value. Such a view fetishizes mere metabolism, reduces the value of life to the continued ticking of the body’s workings.

As for the fears of the elderly… If you think the elderly don’t fear wasting away in agony and/or in a humiliating fashion, then you haven’t spoken to that many elderly people about this subject. I’m not particularly elderly myself, and I fear that sort of death. Having watched my father waste away in agony over the course of several slow months as cancer consumed him, it is a very well-grounded and rational sort of fear at that.

On the more practical/legal side of the argument, the anti-euthanasia case is even worse. There is no law in the UK or the US against suicide as such, but the law prevents those who would willingly and with clear mind make that choice for themselves from carrying out their wishes in the best fashion by denying them medical help. By denying patients that right, current law actually makes it easier for non-voluntary euthanasia to be carried out by those utilitarian doctors you implicate. You are no doubt correct in your suspicion (implied) that some doctors, using overprescription of opiates and similar covert methods, do what they (or the patient’s relatives) think is best – with or without the active voluntary consent of the patient: Since a majority (or at least a significant minority) of people of good will support a patient’s right to choose an end to his or her own suffering, but the law forbids a physician to aid the patient to that end, there is a very natural tendency to assume that a terminally ill patient who dies suddenly chose death of his or her own free will – but that no one (doctors, relatives) can say so without running afoul of the law. In the face of this very commonly made assumption, the absence of any evidence against voluntary consent is taken blindly as evidence for voluntary consent – a gross logical error, of course, but a common (and emotionally easy) error to make in this situation. A law that allows physician-assisted suicide only under conditions of very explicit consent undermines this pernicious assumption, ensuring that every case of euthanasia is genuinely voluntary – and encouraging investigation into sudden deaths where euthanasia has not been explicitly requested.

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