Human Exceptionalism

The UK Debate Over Assisted Suicide Rages

It is interesting how some things never change. In the 1990s, Jack Kevorkian’s death circus lit a wildfire of debate over assisted suicide, with the default position being that since “terminally ill” people are going to commit suicide because the suffering is sometimes so unbearable, let’s legalize it–under controlled circumstances. It didn’t seem to matter a whit that Kevorkian’s clients–they weren’t patients since they only sought death from him, not care–mostly weren’t terminally ill and that some weren’t even sick at all. That truth for some reason could not or would not be seen–and often still isn’t.

A virtually identical paradigm has developed today in the UK. Suicide tourism is taking the lives of people who are dying and disabled, who fly to Switzerland for suicide facilitated by a lay assisted suicide group, using veterinarian euthanasia drugs prescribed by death doctors, who never intend to care for those who come to die. And as in the Kevorkian imbroglio, the media has established terms of the debate that assume these suicides were somehow necessary. The premises and narrative of the controversy have thereby stacked the deck, so to speak, in favor of legalization. Rarely is suicide prevention even mentioned.

It’s hard to get the anti assisted suicide message to penetrate in such a milieu. Occasionally opponents are able to write op/ed pieces, but the impact of these arguments is often muted because they lack the power of repetition accorded arguments in favor of legalizing hastened death. One such opposition piece appeared today The Herald, byline Ron Ferguson, and it is worth reading. From the column:

Despite the passionate and heart-felt arguments for legalising assisted suicide, I want to argue against it. Despite its merciful intentions, such a move would create an ultimately uncontrollable environment in which vulnerable people would be at risk. Relatives burdened by care and costs–or lusting after inheritances–would be tempted to insist that death was what granny wished. The conscientious elderly might feel obliged to make for the exit door to please their busy children, or to avoid being a burden on the state

We’ve already seen that paradigm play out in Oregon, as an example, where the state Medicaid system refused life-extending chemotherapy but was offered assisted suicide instead. Oregon is also where Michael Freeland, a psychotic, man was allowed by his psychiatrist to keep his lethal prescription “safely at home” (his words), even though he knew Freeland was delusional, had been hospitalized for his psychosis, and even though he recommended court supervision because Freeland wasn’t up to supervising his own affairs. And we musn’t forget, ever the BBC presenter who wants assisted legalized so she won’t be burdened by her aging parents.

Ferguson further opines:

And here’s the rub: physician-assisted suicide implicates other people. The doctor has to prepare the deadly prescriptions. I do not want to wonder whether my friendly GP actually intends to kill me. In times of extremity, I don’t want my physician to morph into Harold Shipman.

Is that scare-mongering? Probably, but there are some scares worth mongering. You don’t have to agree with the doctrine of the sacredness of life to see that without a moral rootedness in the non-negotiability of the human, it is all too easy to slip into a utilitarian culture of death. I fear that the current enthronement of the choices of the individual adult –which is as questionable a “world view” as any religious position–takes us down a dangerous road…

I like the poet Arthur Hugh Clough’s “Thou shalt not kill but needs not strive, officiously, to keep alive”. There is a moral distinction between clinically-justified processes that may hasten death and the deliberate taking of life. There are some lines a civilised society should not cross.

We’ve already seen that line crossed, and the consequences that have resulted therefrom, in the Netherlands, where babies are killed by doctors for being born with disabilities, very sick patients are murdered by doctors (for that is what it is under the law) who have not asked to die and nothing meaningful is done about it, people with existential agony are assisted in suicide with the blessings of the Dutch Supreme Court. Doctors who believe their patients don’t qualify for euthanasia refer them to an “autoeuthanasia” Web site containing instructions on how do do yourself in.

Once you accept that killing as a proper response to human suffering, I submit it isn’t whether you will go off the cliff, it is merely how long that process will take.


The Latest