Humanist Beliefs On Euthanasia Essay

Pro assisted suiciders often claim that the only reasons to oppose euthanasia/self mercy killing are religious.  They will claim that opponents see suffering as “redemptive” and thus desirable—intentionally misstating that doctrine— and oppose mercy killing on the basis that only God can take a life.

That  caricature isn’t true, of course. Even the Catholic Church makes many arguments that are not based in its religious dogma but our human duty to care for the sick and protect the vulnerable.  Moreover, the rational reasons for opposing assisted suicide are more numerous and robust than religious arguments, because they hit squarely in one of the few remaining areas of broad value agreement in society—at least in the abstract—the need to protect and promote universal human rights.

I have been making the rational argument against euthanasia/assisted suicide for 17 years, and Rita Marker for more than twenty.   My good pal Nat Hentoff, an atheist, has been even more explicit in this regard, repeatedly arguing with his fellow secular humanists that opposing assisted suicide is that belief system’s proper position.

Now, Brendan O’Neill, the editor of Spike,  has weighed in with a good column making the humanist case against legalizing assisted suicide. I don’t agree with all of it. For example, he would seem to prefer no law rather than legalization or prohibition, because that would permit people to decide what to do in the privacy of family and physician decision making.  But once killing is not prohibited, it is by definition permitted—and the potential for abuse is way too dangerous to permit state neutrality on the issue.

But then, he makes some points, that euthanasia advocacy reflects a profound nihilism and anti human exceptionalism (my terms), that I think are very worth heeding. From the column:

It seems pretty irrefutable to me that the campaign to legalise assisted suicide has become bound up with society’s broader inability to value and celebrate human life today. It is clear that society finds it increasingly difficult to say that human existence is a good thing – you can see this in everything from the environmentalist discussion of newborn babies as ‘future polluters’ to the widespread scaremongering about the ‘ageing timebomb’. And you can see it in the fact that some in the pro-assisted dying campaign want to go beyond having ‘mercy killings’ for people close to death to having ‘assisted dying’ for the very disabled, the ill and even, in the case of Dignitas in Switzerland, the depressed. This effectively sanctions suicide as a response to personal hardship, and gives a green light to hopelessness.

That fits with squarely with my warning that humanism is mutating into anti-humanism. But back to O’Neill:
The campaign for the right to die has both been heavily influenced by and also influences today’s broader anti-life culture. It expresses a broader social pessimism, a shift away from improving human life towards focusing a great deal of our moral and political energies on bringing to an end damaged or impaired human lives. Quite often today the campaign for the right to die goes hand-in-hand with the idea that there are too many people – especially old people – and that society can’t cope with them. When Terry Pratchett, who suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s, suggested creating assisted suicide tribunals he was championed by commentators who basically said: ‘Yes, we need to do something about all these old, mentally-ill people.’ One sympathetic commentator said the rising number of old people is a ‘social catastrophe’ and pointed out that a patient with dementia costs the economy eight times as much as a patient with heart disease. This is increasingly how we judge human life today: not by its internal worth or moral meaning, but by its financial implications or environmental implications.

Precisely. And it wouldn’t be limited to the elderly, but also people with disabilities and others who become deemed drags on society.  That becomes the default setting once society rejects human exceptionalism.

Assisted suicide/euthanasia is one tile in a much larger and dangerous mosaic, which, in its rejection of human exceptionalism, profoundly endanger universal human rights.  We need more secular humanists like O’Neill and Hentoff making that important case.

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For example, Keir Starmer, the UK director of public prosecutions, has drawn up a list of situations in which it would be acceptable to assist someone’s death and a list of situations in which it would not. There are various criteria that an individual must meet – and presumably must prove that he has met – before he can be helped to die. Others have floated the idea of ‘assisted suicide tribunals’ at which terminally ill people could make their case for dying.

Imagine a very elderly person who wants a final push into ‘the next world’ having firstly to check that her circumstances measure up to Keir Starmer’s arbitrary checklist. Or a middle-aged man in the final days of cancer having to make his case to a tribunal before he gets that extra dose of morphine. Surely if there is one thing worse than feeling that you want to die, it is having to convince faceless bureaucrats that you should be allowed to die.

Indeed, the drive to formalise what for centuries has been an informal, humane practice is already making the end of life more difficult for terminally ill people. The idea that we must myopically regulate this area of life to ensure there is no exploitation of sick people by doctors and families is making doctors more cautious about what they might have done naturally in the past: help people die, under the radar.

The legalisation of assisted dying would replace love with law. It would put an end to ‘mercy killings’ carried out by caring families and compassionate doctors and replace them with state-sanctioned killings. This would be a blow to terminally ill people who want to die, because it would deny them the opportunity, at the very end of their lives, to make an independent choice with the help of their loved ones in private. It would zap the very last occasions for love and compassion from their lives, replacing the morally-driven, family-oriented decision to die with the watchful eye of the state and its army of box-ticking, death-sanctioning lawyers.

Secondly, legalising assisted dying would be bad for people who want to live, too. It seems pretty irrefutable to me that the campaign to legalise assisted suicide has become bound up with society’s broader inability to value and celebrate human life today. It is clear that society finds it increasingly difficult to say that human existence is a good thing – you can see this in everything from the environmentalist discussion of newborn babies as ‘future polluters’ to the widespread scaremongering about the ‘ageing timebomb’. And you can see it in the fact that some in the pro-assisted dying campaign want to go beyond having ‘mercy killings’ for people close to death to having ‘assisted dying’ for the very disabled, the ill and even, in the case of Dignitas in Switzerland, the depressed. This effectively sanctions suicide as a response to personal hardship, and gives a green light to hopelessness.

The campaign for the right to die has both been heavily influenced by and also influences today’s broader anti-life culture. It expresses a broader social pessimism, a shift away from improving human life towards focusing a great deal of our moral and political energies on bringing to an end damaged or impaired human lives.

Quite often today the campaign for the right to die goes hand-in-hand with the idea that there are too many people – especially old people – and that society can’t cope with them. When Terry Pratchett, who suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s, suggested creating assisted suicide tribunals he was championed by commentators who basically said: ‘Yes, we need to do something about all these old, mentally-ill people.’ One sympathetic commentator said the rising number of old people is a ‘social catastrophe’ and pointed out that a patient with dementia costs the economy eight times as much as a patient with heart disease. This is increasingly how we judge human life today: not by its internal worth or moral meaning, but by its financial implications or environmental implications. It is not a coincidence that at a time when society is so down on the worth of human life, there is also a very vocal campaign for the ‘right to die’: these two phenomena are linked in subtle but important ways.

The fact remains, however, that only a minority of people in pain choose to end their lives; the majority think life is worth living. But the views of the very active minority of pro-euthanasia campaigners are likely impacting on the way the majority of people experience their lives, possibly making them feel like a burden – a social, financial and environmental burden – if they choose to continue living. And as a humanist, I am also opposed to any undermining of the majority’s quality of life by a tiny minority of campaigners.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here. The above is an edited version of a speech he gave at Conway Hall on 22 April 2010.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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