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Euthanasia's Slippery Slope Can't be Prevented


Some people with disabilities are angry about my opposition to legalizing euthanasia.

aamountainThey are not dying, they just do not want to continue living in their current state.  It's clear they believe they should be given access to legalized euthanasia.

Pro-euthanasia advocates claim, however, that only "end-of-life population" members — who they might be is not defined — will have access and that legalized euthanasia will be rarely used.  They believe "sensible regulation" (the Globe and Mail's editors' term) will ensure such rarity and that no logical slippery slope (the groups allowed access to euthanasia continually expand) or practical slippery slope (euthanasia is abused or used outside the regulations governing it) will result.

To decide who is correct, we need to tease out several strands in the euthanasia debate.

The strongest case for euthanasia is made by a seriously suffering person, such as Dr.  Donald Low, who, when dying from a brain tumour, made a video pleading for "medically assisted death."  He asked us to put ourselves "in his body" and imagine what we would want.  Our hearts, understanding and compassion rightly went out to him.  His plea resonated with something Sue Rodriguez said, "How can you be so cruel as to deny this (physician-assisted suicide) to me?  Even a man condemned to death is given his last wish."

Such people make riveting television and their impact is augmented because the media is largely pro-euthanasia and largely features them.  For example, media coverage of Quebec's Bill 52, after it failed to be put to a vote, featured suffering people who wanted access to euthanasia, not those with disabilities opposing the bill's enactment.

The case against legalizing euthanasia is much more difficult to present, especially visually.  This is because the relevant risks and harms are intangible, inchoate at present, or in the future.  They include risks of abuse of vulnerable people; harm to the ethos and ethics of medicine; to the law's capacity to enshrine and carry the message of respect for life; to important, shared, fundamental values through which we bond to form society — that we care for each other, especially vulnerable people, and don't intentionally kill each other; and leaving a seriously damaged society to future generations.

Advocates of legalizing euthanasia reject "slippery slope" arguments as unfounded fearmongering and claim that its use will always be restricted to rare cases of dying people with unrelievable, unbearable suffering.  But, as the Netherlands and Belgium demonstrate, that's not what results, in practice.

The logical and practical slippery slopes are unavoidable and inevitable, because those consequences are built into the act of legalization through its justification of inflicting death.  Once we cross the clear line that we must not intentionally kill another person, there's no logical stopping point.  Let me explain.

When euthanasia is first legalized, the usual necessary and sufficient justification for breaching that line is a conjunctive justification comprised of respect for individual autonomy and the relief of suffering.  But as people and physicians become accustomed to euthanasia, they ask, "Why not just relief of suffering or respect for autonomy alone?", and these become alternative justifications.

As a lone justification, relief of suffering allows euthanasia of those unable to consent for themselves.  Pro-euthanasia advocates argue that allowing euthanasia is to do good to suffering mentally competent people, consequently, denying it to mentally incompetent suffering people unable to consent is wrong, it's discrimination on the basis of mental handicap.  So suffering people with dementia or disabled newborn babies or children should have access to euthanasia.

And if one owns one's own life and no one else has the right to interfere with one's decisions in that regard, as pro-euthanasia advocates also claim, then respect for the person's autonomy is a sufficient justification for euthanasia.  That is, the person need not be suffering to have access, hence the proposal in the Netherlands that euthanasia should be available to those "over 70 and tired of life."

And once the initial justification for euthanasia is expanded, why not allow some other justifications, for instance, saving on health-care costs, especially with an aging population?  Until very recently, this was an unaskable question.  Now, it's being raised in relation to euthanasia.  It's anecdotal, but a final year medical student became very angry because I rejected his insistent claim that legalizing euthanasia was essential to save the health-care costs of an aging population.

The practical slippery slope is unavoidable because familiarity with inflicting death causes us to lose a sense of the awesomeness of what euthanasia involves, killing another human being.  The same is true in making euthanasia a medical act.

Finally, familiarity with inflicting death and making euthanasia a medical act make both its logical extension and its abuse, in practice, much more likely, indeed, I believe inevitable.  We need to stay firmly behind the clear line that establishes that we do not intentionally kill each other.



Margaret Somerville. "Euthanasia's slippery slope can't be prevented." Calgary Herald (Canada) March 3, 2014.

Reprinted with permission of the author, Margaret Somerville.


The Author

Somerville2Margaret Somerville is Professor of Bioethics in the School of Medicine at the University of Notre Dame Australia. Until recently, she was Samuel Gale Professor of Law, Professor in the Faculty of Medicine, and Founding Director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, Montreal. She is the author of Bird on an Ethics WireThe 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 © 2014 Margaret Somerville
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