Euthanasia – 4 myths

1) The choice myth

Euthanasia advocates seem to believe that referring to “choice” always clinches the argument.  They appear to assume that choice can only be good.  I agree that choice is better than coercion, but this doesn’t mean choice is necessarily and always a boon.

Have you seen the movie Sophie’s Choice?  The pivotal scene involves the guards at a Nazi concentration camp tormenting a woman by saying they’re going to kill one of her two children and demanding that she choose which.  If she doesn’t choose, they’ll kill both.  Is this choice a boon?

Even in more mundane situations, a choice can actually be burdensome: one is required to make a decision, which requires thought.  Depending on the topic, that thought may be accompanied by strong emotion.  Some choice decisions are really difficult: we call some of them dilemmas: we often prefer to avoid them and don’t like them being imposed on us.

Euthanasia advocates entirely overlook the great majority of terminally ill patients who are eligible for euthanasia but who might prefer not to think about it.  (I say “great majority” because a part of the euthanasia sales pitch is that it will result in very few deaths.)  Once the euthanasia topic pervades the hospital, it will be the elephant in every room.  We will in no time reach a point where patients who wish to live will have to say so.  The “have to” will not be a legal obligation, but a social-familial one: they will feel expected to have thought about it and to have “reached a position”.

The End of Life Choice Act will impose this terrible burden on a large number of people who are already more than sufficiently burdened.

2) The dignity myth

Another magic word relied on by euthanasia advocates is “dignity”.  They tell us that people have a right to “die with dignity” and that this justifies euthanasia.

I agree that a controlled death (predictable, painless, surrounded by family etc) is desirable – far more convenient and less unpleasant than waiting and risking being alone when the time comes.  I can easily imagine preferring it.

However, I don’t agree that a controlled death is more “dignified” than an uncontrolled one, any more than I think any other exertion of control (in any context) is more dignified than allowing events to unfold.

For a start, our desire for control, while understandable, is often not realistic.  A lot of energy and resources are often wasted on it.

In addition, the desire for control is often more like a need – a need that can become seriously dysfunctional, such as in the cases of obsessive-compulsive disorder and extreme perfectionism.

In any case, I simply don’t see how the desire/need for a controlled death is more “dignified” than the patience, forbearance and endurance involved in submitting to circumstance.  It may be a preferable death, in all sorts of ways, but not more dignified.

3) The “My life, my death, my choice” myth

This rather indignant insistence on personal autonomy wants to be conclusive in the euthanasia debate, but it only relates to euthanasia where the patient takes their own life.  As we all know, suicide is already legal, so this bumper-sticker seems redundant to me.

It may be that people who use this argument do so in the hope that it will somehow apply to the other scenario where a patient who is unable to self-administer the lethal drug arranges for someone else to do it.  However, it doesn’t apply there.

The patient is in the midst of a personal tragedy and we should sympathise with all people so afflicted.  However, it is that patient’s tragedy and I believe we are not supposed to drag other people into our personal tragedies, and we should especially not do this if we wish to proudly proclaim our autonomy at the same time.

Far from being independent or autonomous, this patient brings another person into their death and turns that other person into a killer.  Although the other person provides a formal legal consent, turning someone into a killer will profoundly change them.  “Please kill me” is asking a lot and the blithe and cocky “My life, my death, my choice” trivialises this.

I suppose the fundamental problem with “My life, my death, my choice” slogan (and also the “My body, my choice” of abortion advocacy) is the utter self-absorption embedded in it.  This is no more impressive than the adolescent “Me, me, me”, and we should not expect any good to result from adults appropriating that sentiment and giving it legal authority.

4) The compassion myth

This myth falls over with the others.

It makes perfect sense to feel compassion for any human who is suffering – whether they are suffering from poverty, exclusion, fear, grief, helplessness, worthlessness, despair, physical pain or, really, anything else that hurts them.

I don’t think this idea is controversial and I’m confident that people on both sides of the euthanasia discussion fully appreciate it.  So, when euthanasia advocates claim compassion for their side only, they are just being morally conceited.

Compassion is not just felt, valued and practised by everyone (or, should be), it is also felt and practised for the benefit of everyone, not just for some.  If it is selective, it really stops being good.  After all, compassion is not the only virtue, but is part of a package of virtues that includes justice.  Selective compassion is unjust.

It can be seen from the choice myth that euthanasia advocates’ compassion is extremely selective: they seek a choice which is a benefit for a small number and a terrible burden for a far greater number.

Their narrow moral focus becomes even more apparent in their “Me, me, me” slogan.  They give no consideration whatever to the fact that, in many cases, a human being who has never killed, and indeed who has vowed to “Do no harm”, is turned into a killer for their sake.  This is ruthless selfishness, not compassion.