Human Exceptionalism

A Liberal’s Righteous Critique of Assisted Suicide

The media like to portray opponents of assisted suicide as almost all conservative, religious, and pro life on abortion. That has never been true. Medical professional organizations–which are secular and support abortion rights–have always opposed legalization. Disability rights activists are, in my view, the most effective opponents of assisted suicide, and they are overwhelmingly secular in outlook, liberal politically, and not pro life about abortion.

The media’s myopia about this may explain why Liberalism’s Troubled Search for Equality, a recent book authored by Robert P. Jones of the Center for American Progress (People for the American Way)–a proud liberal progressive–did not receive much more attention. Jones castigates assisted suicide as decidedly anti equality. From my review published today in First Things online:

Jones contends that assisted suicide, whatever its liberty claim, profoundly violates the superseding liberal principle that all lives are to be equally protected, since some suicidal persons will receive facilitation,and others prevention, some better care than others, some could be coerced through economic circumstances into not being a “burden,” etc. This being so, and since equality trumps liberty whenever they conflict, Jones argues that assisted suicide should not be legalized–much less made a constitutional right–particularly given the profound social inequalities faced by the seriously ill, the elderly, and people with disabilities. Moreover, their exclusion of religious voices in the public square, rather than helping society determine the right, actually renders egalitarian liberals unable to “hear the real voices of the disadvantaged it promises to champion.”

Jones has nailed it in his book and does so in a distinctly secular lexicon. Assisted suicide is intrinsically anti-equality. It opens the door for applying killing instead of caring for patients who are most expensive to care for. Most importantly, assisted suicide advocacy accepts the notion that there are human lives not worth living.

I conclude my review:

Still, Jones’ logically argued and precisely aimed brief against assisted suicide from a liberal philosophical perspective–no call to respect the sanctity of human life her–is a distinct service to the broader debate. He proves to anyone with eyes to read that legalizing assisted suicide would be decidedly illiberal and would be an exercise in crass solipsism. As Jones notes in his conclusion:

If liberals could summon the moral vision, integrity, and political will to forgo, even temporarily, a liberty for the privileged that is costly to the already disadvantaged, this act would communicate a sincere commitment to equal concern and social solidarity. Failing to make these connections is tantamount to claiming that, in these circumstances, the lives of the disadvantaged matter less, and that position is one that no true egalitarian can tolerate.

So true. But, in my experience, committed assisted-suicide advocates, unlike the author, aren’t much interested in bringing about an ideal liberal and egalitarian society. Rather, theirs is an agenda of the privileged pursued mostly by single-minded advocates who want what they want–the right to die in the time, manner, and method of their own choosing. In achieving this goal, they don’t much care who gets hurt.

Good for Jones for casting needed light about this important issue from the unequivocally left side of the stadium.