Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Euthanasia: A Right to Death with Dignity or License to Kill with Impunity? (Part 3)

(Part 1)
(Part 2)

There are many different reasons that opponents of euthanasia provide for rejecting it as a viable option for dealing with the difficult end-of-life dilemmas created by modern science and technology. But one of the most prominent arguments is that it does not solve any of the difficulties, and, worse yet, will necessarily create a whole host of new ones. Opponents hold very strongly that euthanasia is a detriment to society rather than a benefit. The legalization of euthanasia will result in a culture of death that will endanger the weak members of society, rather than promote a culture that is genuinely concerned for their welfare. In opposition to the claim that euthanasia is the best means for showing mercy to the weak, opponents argue that it will do the opposite and become a means for justifying cruelty.

The danger of legalizing voluntary euthanasia (killing upon request of individual because of his right of self-determination) is that it will lead to acceptance of other forms of euthanasia that are not voluntary, but are rather done either without the consent of the individual or even against the individual's consent. Once society is conditioned to accept death as a legitimate means of social engineering, it will become a culturally acceptable way to deal with those in society that no longer contribute to its progress but only "waste" its resources. Human life could become objectified and snuffed out if killing offers an advantage to the national or individual interest. Advocating euthanasia could result in the government, which once derived its ratio essendi (the reason for its existence) from its granting protection to the underprivileged to abandon that goal and reserve all rights to its stronger and fitter members.

Health, efficiency, and beauty are quickly becoming the supreme values in our youth driven culture, which can create a perspective of indifference that presents a threat for the weaker members of society. Those with a lesser "quality of life" could be encouraged to view themselves as insignificant, a burden to their family and society, and not possessing a quality of life worth living. As the physically and mentally handicapped, the elderly, the impoverished, etc., are deemed a burden and undesirable constituents of society, then there could be great pressure placed on them to see themselves as society does, and hence, utilize euthanasia to "self-determine" themselves out of society's hair and to stop wasting society's precious resources. Once killing on demand has softened the ban on active homicide, victims are soon likely to be killed without their consent, rather than waiting for them to request it. When society begins to give some individuals the power to end others' lives, it cannot prevent the principles underlying that permission from being applied to ever more broadening circumstances.

Opponents and proponents alike refer to this argument as the "slippery slope" argument. The slippery slope argument rests on the reality that ideas have consequences, for example, practice A will lead to practice B and then C, etc. Many proponents of euthanasia, however, discount this argument for they believe that it is based unnecessarily on fear and on fatalistic assumptions that are mere logical conjecture and not rooted in fact. However, when one looks at the literature advocating euthanasia, it becomes quite obvious that the advocates of euthanasia embrace the idea embodied in the slippery slope mode of argument themselves. Here are three brief examples:

Example #1: Euthanasia proponents are taking advantage of "slippery slope" logic to move from abortion rights to suicide rights. Derek Humphry, long-time activist for "suicide rights" and author of the bestseller Final Exit has said that the reason there has been a recent increase in momentum for euthanasia is because of the effects of Roe v. Wade. That court case and subsequent right to abortion on demand, which was predicated on the "right to privacy" and the "right to choose" (right to self-determination), has resulted in a view of death and a person's right to individual autonomy that have led to advocates pushing now for death rights. Jack Kevorkian has also stipulate that "just as birth control and abortion are no longer generally seen as harmful, so, too, should the emotional stigma of taboo be stripped away from the completely moral concept of euthanasia."[1]

Example #2: Euthanasia proponents also utilize the slippery slope argument with reference to reaching their goal of legalized euthanasia through incremental steps. Humphry suggests that since suicide is no longer a crime, then neither should assisting someone in sucide. He also states that he believes that euthanasia will eventually be legalized because, "with the inevibtability of gradualness, as the idea takes hold amonst rising generations, reform will undoubtedly come."[2] Kevorkian also argues for the incremental progression to towards legalized euthanasia (A will lead to B, which will lead to C, etc.),
I feel it is only decent and fair to explain my litimate aim. [Euthanasia] is not simply to help suffering or doomed person kill themselves--that is merely the first step, an early distasteful propfessional obligation. . . . What I find most satisfying is the prospect of making possible the performance of invaluable experiments or other beneficial medical acts under conditions that this first unpleasant step can help establish.[3]
In an article supporting euthanasia as the ultimate civil liberty, Barbara Dority utilizes the slippery slope argument in order to argue for euthanasia as protection against the tyranny of doctors. She asserts that there is a rising problem with doctors not fully honoring living wills. Because she champions individual autonomy as a foundational principle for death decisions, she argues that if the medical environment does not change, individual's rights to self-determination with regards to death will progress to the point of oppressive tyranny. She suggests te best means to keep this potential tyranny from becoming reality is to check the doctor's authority with the legalization of euthanasia.[4]

Example 3: A final example concerns the desire to see euthanasia become an acceptable practice because of the growing acceptability of what is called "passive" euthanasia. Many ethicists have created a distinction between active and passive, and voluntary and involuntary euthanasia. According to one of the leading advocates of euthanasia, "There is thus a distinct difference between passive--or indirect--euthanasia, where death is induced by suspensions of treatment, and the so-called active or direct euthanasia, wehre death is brought about by a definite act."[5] John Frame believes that subdividing euthanasia this way is a deceptive and dangerous use of language. He agrees that there is a distinct difference, but it is more than merely a terminological difference, but is inherently a difference in content and action. Active euthanasia is the intentional killing or taking of life that is not otherwise in the prociess of dying, whereas passive euthanasia is allowing one who is already dieing to die. It is inappropriate to label two completely different actions under the same heading. To do so creates an illegitmate moral equation between two distinct issues, and becomes a way to lead persons who are prone to accept passive euthanasia to become willing to accept active euthanasia--not based on the concepts that lie behind the words, but simply because of the similarities of the words.[6]

Frame is correct in his assertion that euthanasia advocates are attempting to sway public opinion to accept the one because of the other. This argument has been used by J. Rachels through what he calls the "equivalence thesis," which teaches that ther is no "bare difference" between killing and letting die, since both have the same motive and achieve the same end. Since the two are morally equivalent then they are morally indifferent; so since passive euthanasia is seen as an acceptable practice, then so should active euthanasia."[7]

Euthanasia advocates, then, utilize the slippery sloope argument themselves to get society to embrace euthanasia by emphasizing a proposed progression from abortion rights to death rights, by using it as the initial step in achieving further ends, and by asserting the moral equivalence and indifference between killing and letting die. The purpose of pointing out these examples is to suggest that it is illegitimate, inconsisten, and ultimately hypocritical for advocates of euthanasia to casually brush off the concern that legalizing euthanasia will lead to abuses that will threaten society rather than promote mercy, simply by labeling it a slippery slope argument, since they themselves engage in this mode of argumentation to achieve their own ends.

But the fact that euthanasia advocates use the slippery slope argument does not legitimize the position of euthanasia opponents. Are euthanasia advocates correct in their assertion that the slippery slope argument of euthanasia opponents is based unnecessarily on fear and on fatalistic assumptions that are mere logical conjecture and not rooted in fact? The remaining posts will seek to vindicate the concerns of euthanasia opponents as not being logical flights of fancy, but in fact rooted in reality.


[1] Jack Kevorkian, Prescription Medicine: The Goodness of Planned Death (Buffalo: Promethius Books, 1991), 181.

[2] Derek Humphry, "Why I believe in Voluntary Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide."

[3] Kevorkian, Prescription Medicine, 214.

[4] Barabara Dority, "The Ultimate Civil Liberty," Humanist 57.4 (1997): 16-20.

[5] Christian Barnard, Good Life/Good Death: A Doctor's Case for Euthanasia and Suicide (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980), 64-65.

[6] John M. Frame, Medical Ethics: Principles, Persons, and Problems (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1988), 68.

[7] J. Rachels, "Active and Passive Euthanasia," The New England Journal of Medicine 292 (January 9, 1975): 78-80. For a fuller treatment on euthanasia by Rachels, see The End of Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986). For a similar perspective see Leslie Burkholder, "Nancy B and Nancy F," Journal of Applied Philosophy 18.2 (Aug 2000): 193-96.

1 comment:

  1. Another good post David. I wonder if the modern push for euthanasia is a new strain of the early 20th Century Eugenics movement, free of the Nazi overtones of course. I also wonder if euthanasia is a culmination of modern subjective utilitarianism per sinful man. Just a few passing thoughts as I read, I look forward to read the rest of your posts on euthanasia.