Thursday, April 23, 2009

Euthanasia: A Right to Death with Dignity or License to Kill with Impunity? (Part 5)

(Part 4)

So far in this series of posts I have been arguing that legalizing euthanasia will have a negative effect on society by creating a culture of death in which death will become the accepted means for dealing with life's difficulties, it will lead to abuses that will endanger the weak and elderly, and it will result in other forms of euthanasia (such as nonvoluntary and involuntary) that can endanger everyone; and, therefore, euthanasia should not become an acceptable means for dealing with the difficult end-of-life dilemmas, for rather than promoting death with dignity, it will provide a license for killing with impunity.

In the post yesterday I defended this thesis by arguing that euthanasia proponents have stated in their literature and demonstrated in their practice that promoting euthanasia as a means for mercifully dealing with persons who are terminally ill and suffering with pain is not an end in itself but a means to other ends. Today I want to continue to defend my thesis by arguing that even some euthanasia advocates acknowledge the great potential of abuse by their own stated need for strict limits.

Humphry realizes that the unqualified legalization of euthanasia will lead to serious abuses. In order to attempt to prevent those abuses, he provides a detailed set of criteria that must be met. He states that this practice should never be used on someone to assist them in suicide for mental health or emotional reasons. Rather, it should be restricted to persons who have a physician-verified hopeless diagnosis of an advanced terminal illness that is causing unbearable suffering (combined physical and psychic), including being a burden to others. The person should be experiencing a total loss of quality of life due to protected, incurable medical conditions, or have a grave physical handicap which is so restricting that the individual cannot tolerate such a limited experience (notice here that his sounds more like mental and emotional). the person should be a mature adult and clearly demonstrate that he is making an informed decision himself and not under coercion; euthanasia should be a last resort that is not practiced at the first knowledge of the illness so that time can be spent pursuing treatment. Also, the person's physician is to be informed to make sure that the individual is not mistaken about his diagnosis.

The reason Humphry provides the criteria is precisely because he knows that if left unqualified, the practice of euthanasia will broaden beyond providing relief to those who are suffering unmanageable pain and on death's door, to include others who are not. His provision for criteria to prevent abuse is itself an admission that the slippery slope argument is a valid argument, especially given what we saw in the proposals of Quill and Kevorkian yesterday.

In fact, one advocate admits that this is true, but although it is true, she confesses that she is just not convinced that it must become a reality. Marcia Angell who is an advocate for euthanasia claims that the slippery slope argument is unpersuasive, yet admits that, "We cannot avoid the slippery slope; in fact, . . . we are already on it, like it or not."[1] She suggests, however, that just because the slippery slope is a reality and that we are already sliding down it, we don't have to go all the way. The way to avoid a headlong slide downhill is to draw a distinction between euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide (henceforth PAS) and to allow the latter but not the former. She believes that PAS should be legalized because it requires the patient to act and allows the patient to retain ultimate control (he can always change his mind). Euthanasia, on the other hand, should not be legalized because the death is not caused by a direct act of the patient, which takes control away from the individual. To support this distinction, Angell also posits that a headlong slide downhill could be resisted by drawing a line between voluntary and involuntary.

Yet, despite Angell's proposed distinctions as means to avoid a headlong slide down the slippery slope that we are already on even prior to legalized killing, she says, "No system of safeguards for any workable endeavor is absolutely foolproof."[2] Angell concedes, then, that because of the potential of great abuse, the present reality of abuse and the reality that it is going to get worse, there needs to be limits put in place to try and guard against abuse. This call for limits, then, and her admission that we are already on the slippery slope justify the slippery slope argument. But, as she has admitted, there are no safeguards available to resist the headlong slide down the slippery slope that we are already on. The best we can do is to hold off the abuses for a time, but they will eventually become realities since no safeguards are foolproof.

Isn't this exactly the concern of the slippery slope argument? If you allow any form of euthanasia at all, it will necessarily lead to abuses and other forms of killing. Angell, then, in stating that there is a slippery slope and that we can hold off a headlong slide down it but only for a time by establishing some safeguards, that will not work completely and will eventually give way demonstrates the validity of the slippery slope argument. She is so convinced of her position to legalize euthanasia, or at least PAS, that she refuses to change her position in spite of her belief that it will lead to abuses. But the fact that she will not heed her own conclusions does not negate what she knows to be true; legalizing euthanasia will lead to abuses that will endanger the weak and elderly, and it will result in other forms of euthanasia (such as nonvoluntary and involuntary) that can endanger everyone. It will provide a license for killing with impunity.


[1] Marcia Angell, "Voluntary Euthanasia Shows Compassion for the Dying," in Euthanasia: Opposing Viewpoints, ed. James D. Torr (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2000), 51.

[2] Ibid.

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