John Kleinsman: No case for killing society’s most vulnerable

The ‘right to die’ could become a ‘duty’ to die, writes John Kleinsman
The case against Sean Davison has provoked debate about whether euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide should be legalised.

Few would argue that Mr Davison was not motivated by a sense of love and duty for his mother in doing what he did – he thought he was doing the best thing for her. But, as far as the bigger picture is concerned, Mr Davison’s motivation is beside the point. It is drawing a very long bow to argue that this one “hard” case merits the legalisation of euthanasia.

The case in favour of euthanasia is not without its own logic. Euthanasia advocates most commonly present the issue as being about freedom of choice.

Legalising euthanasia will not adversely affect the choices of those who do not want to die in this way, it is argued. They remain free to act without interference. On the other hand, the prohibition of euthanasia unfairly prevents some (albeit a small minority) from exercising their personal choice; the values of one group are effectively forced on to others.

However, the reality is that we don’t make our choices in isolation; our so-called “free” choices are constrained by factors beyond our control.

We all find ourselves subject to pressures generated by the impact and intersection of familial, cultural, societal and economic influences.

Consider the society we live in. Sadly, the experience of those who are sick, dying, disabled and elderly is that they are becoming increasingly isolated and feel less valued. Families are more fragmented with grown-up children often living far apart from parents and unable to provide practical and emotional support.

Meanwhile, the average age of death is climbing, the number of elderly people in care is increasing and the costs of caring for the ill and the old loom larger while the tax base shrinks.

If euthanasia were legalised there would be an increased temptation for families and society as a whole to see those who are disabled and sick as a burden to be shed rather than as persons to be cared for. In other words, legalising euthanasia will place at greater risk those whom others might be tempted to think would be better off dead.

Furthermore, there is the very real danger that people who feel neglected and undervalued will see themselves as a burden and will want to do the “right” thing, especially when there are growing economic pressures on providing health and other forms of care for the aged. The “right to die” will quickly become a “duty” to die.

The vulnerability of the elderly is already reflected in the rising rates of suicide among the elderly and the growing numbers of elderly reporting that they are victims of abuse. Is making suicide easier and more acceptable really the best we can do as a society? The choice argument put forward by those in favour of euthanasia would only work in a perfect world where there were no limits on health resources, where families weren’t fragmented, where there were no arguments about inheritances and where the elderly and sick did not feel isolated or marginalised.

No euthanasia legislation can effectively guard against the abuse that would arise. This issue is about the protection of those most vulnerable at a time in their life when they most deserve to feel safe, valued and cared for.

Mr Davison has said that people should not judge him until they have been in his position. I don’t judge him. I understand that supporting a person who is dying is incredibly challenging – physically, emotionally and spiritually. I have been there with my own mother. The dying and their families need support at such times – the sort of holistic support provided by hospice services which includes effective pain relief – rather than a licence to be killed and the fear of being coerced into dying that would come with it.

What bearing does the Davison case have on the debate about legalising euthanasia? Condoning the killing of the elderly, terminally ill or sick would create far more suffering than it would ever resolve. As the saying goes, “hard cases make bad law”.

Many people, including those ideologically in favour of euthanasia, recognise this. That is why, in the past two years, at least nine different parliaments around the world have voted down attempts to legalise euthanasia while no jurisdiction has voted in favour. That alone should tell us something about the dangers euthanasia presents for society. The laws stopping assisted suicide and euthanasia are there for good reason.

We cannot even contemplate creating a legal “right to die” for some when it means many more will lose their right or will to live.

* John Kleinsman is the director of the Nathaniel Centre, the New Zealand Catholic Bioethics Centre


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