Bioethicist’s Unprincipled Attack on Not Dead Yet

Some bioethicists are not nearly as smart as they think.

Witness this attack by University of Ottawa professor Stuart Chambers on the disability rights advocacy organization Not Dead Yet for its opposition to legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia.

Chambers calls the organization’s stance, “unprincipled” because it distinguishes between the right to refuse life-sustaining medical treatment, which the group supports, and legalized euthanasia/assisted suicide, which it opposes implacably.  From, “Not Dead Yet: An Unprincipled Position Against Assisted Death:”

Although the choices surrounding acts of commission and acts of omission could be similarly motivated by loss of autonomy, decrease in bodily function, or feelings of being a burden, Not Dead Yet only supports autonomous choice for passive treatment decisions (withholding or withdrawing life-sustaining treatment) that lead to premature death.

To be consistent, Not Dead Yet should be lobbying for or against all end-of-life alternatives.

We’ve been hearing this same tired, sophistry for decades:

  • Withdrawing medical treatment may lead to death, but that isn’t the intent. Indeed, the point is to stop an unwanted bodily intrusion, not to kill. As Paul Ramsey put it, that is treating the “patient as a person.”
  • With the exception of a feeding tube, such deaths are uncertain. Sometimes–if unexpectedly–people live. For example, Karen Ann Quinlan lived about ten years after her respirator was removed.
  • Death is certain in euthanasia/assisted suicide.
  • When medical treatment is withdrawn or withheld on request, if it comes, the death is natural.
  • In euthanasia/assisted suicide, death is unnatural, e.g., a result of homicide or suicide.
  • In contrast to removing unwanted treatment, the intent of assisted suicide/euthanasia is to kill.

Not Dead Yet sees clearly that assisted suicide/euthanasia discriminates invidiously against people with disabilities because it treats them as a disposable caste whose lives are not worth saving if they become suicidal. 

The vital distinction between “allowing to die” and “making dead” through homicidal or suicidal means was recognized 9-0 by the United States Supreme Court in the 1997 decision Vacco v Quill (my emphasis):

[A] physician who withdraws, or honors a patient’s refusal to begin, life sustaining medical treatment purposefully intends, or may so intend, only to respect his patient’s wishes to cease doing useless and futile degrading things to the patient when the patient no longer stands to benefit from them. …

A doctor who assists a suicide, however, must necessarily and indubitably, intend primarily that the patient be made dead.

Similarly, a patient who commits suicide with a doctor’s aid has the specific intent to end his or her own life, while a patient who refuses or discontinues treatment might not …[and, indeed] may instead fervently wish to live, but to do so free of unwanted medical technology, surgery, or drugs. (Citations omitted.)

In other words, the right to refuse unwanted medical treatment is not a “right to die” but a right to be free from unwanted bodily intrusions.

So were the nine justices–liberal and conservative–who unanimously signed this decision “unprincipled?” Please.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the attack on Not Dead Yet and the opposition of disability rights organizations to assisted suicide. They pierce the political and ethical sensibilities of those on the political left. They appeal to secularist sensibilities and arguments. Most importantly, they are effective.

Advocates like Chambers would do well to learn the skill of three-dimensional thinking and making nuanced distinctions. It would help them understand cogent and sophisticated arguments against legalizing assisted suicide.

Wesley J. Smith — Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism.

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