I have spent around thirty years researching and writing on assisted suicide/euthanasia and I believe there are a series of questions we must address and that in answering them many more people will come to the conclusion that legalizing assisted suicide/euthanasia is a very bad idea.
Legalizing assisted suicide/euthanasia raises issues not only at the level of individuals like Gloria Taylor who want access to assisted suicide — the micro level — which is the level of the majority of the arguments presented in court cases and in the media. But also, it will have profound impact at the meso or institutional level — impact on healthcare professions and hospitals; at the macro or societal level — impact on some of our most important shared values that provide the glue that binds us as society; and, even, impact at the mega or global level — the message and precedent it will broadcast about Canada outside our borders.
Taking all these levels into account, the assisted suicide/euthanasia debate comes down to a direct conflict between the value of respect for human life, on the one hand, and individuals' rights to autonomy and self-determination — the value of "choice" — on the other.
People who are anti-assisted suicide/euthanasia give priority to respect for human life. That value has two limbs: respect for each individual human life, and respect for human life in general. Even if we were to accept (which I do not) as the Taylor case would allow, that helping a competent, consenting, disabled adult to die does not contravene respect for individual human life, it still contravenes the second limb of the value, that is, respect for human life in general. Legalizing assisted suicide/euthanasia means that we cross the line that we have maintained for millennia in societies such as ours: that we must not intentionally kill each other, the only exceptions being where that is the only reasonable way to protect human life, as in self-defence.
People who support legalizing assisted suicide/euthanasia simply assume that individual autonomy is the value that takes priority. As in the Taylor case, their justification for taking that stance is made almost entirely at the individual level — the right of individuals to decide how and when and where they will die. This position is presented by pro-euthanasia advocates as a necessary means to relieve pain and suffering. Research shows, however, that is not the reason many people want assisted suicide/euthanasia. They are more likely to be fearful of being abandoned — dying alone and unloved — and of being a burden on others. Surely our response to such fears shouldn't be an offer to help them to kill themselves or to give them a lethal injection.
Strong arguments against legalizing assisted suicide/euthanasia at the individual level include a realistic and valid concern about their abusive use, especially in relation to old people in an aging population, and particularly when paired with increasing disquiet about health-care costs. And that is not just my opinion. Two Environics polls, one in 2010 that surveyed over 2000 Canadians and one in 2011, showed Canadians are very concerned about elder abuse if assisted suicide/euthanasia is legalized.
The 2011 poll expressly asked about "elder abuse" and 76 percent of respondents said they were concerned about it if euthanasia were legalized. The 2010 poll did not expressly ask about "elder abuse", but did ask a question where 78 percent of respondents said they were concerned that elderly persons (disabled and sick persons too) would be euthanized without consent. To another 2010 question, 63 percent said they were concerned elderly persons could be pressured to accept euthanasia in order to reduce health care costs.
I have spent around thirty years researching and writing on assisted suicide/euthanasia and I believe there are a series of questions we must address and that in answering them many more Canadians will come to the conclusion that legalizing assisted suicide/euthanasia is a very bad idea. These questions include the following:
So, we must ask, what do dying people need to make death bearable and put into practice what we find. Researchers such as psychiatrist Dr Harvey Max Chochinov of Manitoba and his colleagues are helping us to gain knowledge in that regard. It includes having access to good palliative care, including fully adequate pain management. But it also includes existential matters such as helping dying people to feel that they are respected and that they have something to give us — that we have something to learn from them — which they can leave as a legacy, and that even when we are dying we can have a sense of hope and avoid the slough of despair.
Margaret Somerville. "How do we want our great-great-grandchildren to die?" Ottawa Citizen (Canada) July 1, 2011.
Reprinted with permission of the author, Margaret Somerville.
Margaret Somerville, AM, FRSC is an Australian/Canadian ethicist and academic. She is the Samuel Gale Professor of Law, Professor in the Faculty of Medicine, and the Founding Director of the Faculty of Law's Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University. She is the author of The Ethical Imagination: CBC Massey Lectures, Death Talk: The Case Against Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide, The Ethical Canary: Science, Society, and the Human Spirit, and Do We Care?.
Copyright © 2012 Margaret Somerville
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