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Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

Should Doctors Aid Self-Starvation?



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A disturbing sign of the times: The focus on hastening death grows ever more intense. Euthanasia groups, for example, increasingly push VSED–”voluntary stop eating and drinking”–to become dead.

But the rigors and pain associated with self-starvation require a doctor’s help to accomplish. The question is whether helping patients starve/dehydrate themselves to death is a proper medical intervention.

The utilitarian bioethicist Julian Savulescu says yes. From the HealthCanal story:

People with terminal illness have the right to refuse to eat and drink and receive palliative care if they wish to die, argues world renowned ethicist Oxford University Professor Julian Savulescu.

Professor Savulescu will speak about the place of refusal of food and hydration as a legal and ethical form of assisted dying at QUT School of Law’s 2014 Health Law Research Centre annual public lecture on March 31.”People have the right to refuse to eat and drink and the right to palliative care to relieve their symptoms,” Professor Savulescu said. “It is one way terminally ill people can control when and how they die.”

But why should such “control” be limited to the terminally ill? Indeed, if we have the right to choose time, manner, place, and reason for our deaths, why can’t anyone who wants to be dead simply stop eating and expect a doctor to make the suffering bearable?

I have a different opinion about a doctor’s duties. As I have written here:

This [a doctor facilitating VSED] seems akin to a doctor helping a patient self-harm by providing a sanitized blade for use in cutting. In other words, it contravenes everything medicine should stand for. 

Besides, VSED is really about opening the door to lethal injection. I mean, if a doctor can help patients starve themselves to death, why not be more humane and just put them? 

It seems to me that once the lethal premise that doctor’s job can be to hasten death is accepted, the logic becomes inescapable. 



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