The British Medical Journal reported last week that Dutch legislators are considering the extension of their law of euthanasia to old people who are not fatally ill but merely tired of life and who therefore wish to shuffle off this mortal coil before their time. If the Devil should not have all the best tunes, why should the dying have all the best deaths? What have they done to deserve it? Let us be reasonable.
Initially, euthanasia was permitted in the Netherlands in the name of humanity and compassion. There are undoubtedly cases in which the most awful suffering is both unremitting and hopeless, leading in the near (but not quite near enough) future to death. With real religious faith such suffering can sometimes be accepted with equanimity, but not always even then. Besides, most people nowadays have no such faith; and therefore it seems only kind to bring forward death to avoid unnecessary and useless suffering.
There are several practical arguments against this view of the matter, of course, independent of the overarching belief that human life is sacred and it is no part of a doctor’s work actively to end it. Principal among these arguments is that of the slippery slope, in other words that one thing leads to another, and then to another, until the abyss is reached.
The argument of the slippery slope can be used to oppose any change whatever, for once you concede a, you have no firm ground from which to resist the concession of b, and so forth, until you reach absurdity or worse. Projection, however, is not prediction, nor is any slope a fatality, so that not every abyss is reached just because the first step toward it has been taken.
In this case, however, the Netherlands, or at any rate a group of people in the Netherlands, seems eager to slip down the euthanasian slope as quickly as possible. If they have their way, Amsterdam may yet have its suicide parlors as it has its coffee shops.
According to the BMJ, the rationale for euthanasia has changed, at least for those who want to extend the law, from the prevention of suffering to the promotion of personal autonomy. If old people feel that their life has reached its end, that they have become what the Nazis termed useless eaters, who are we to insist that they continue to live, and therefore why not help them to end their lives as painlessly as possible? Their wishes as autonomous human beings should be respected as paramount.
It doesn’t take much reflection to discover certain problems with this line of thought. If individual autonomy is the touchstone, to be always respected, then whim is as much to be complied with as fixity of purpose. If I say I want to die, it matters not that the feeling will pass in an hour’s time: The purveyor of euthanasia, whoever it might be, has no right to enquire about the steadiness of, or even my reasons for, my death wish once he has established that I am not actually mad and have the capacity to decide for myself. Nor is there any reason to confine the benefits of euthanasia to the old, for to do so would be ageist and discriminatory (and discrimination is the root of all evil). One may, after all, feel tired of life and find it meaningless at any age, indeed it is very common early in life; one does not have to wait until one is 70 to experience taedium vitae. Graham Greene played Russian roulette, or said that he did, early in his life; why leave matters to chance?
Be this all as it may, there is something rather odd about extending assistance, in the name of personal autonomy, to people who wish to die, because they are perfectly capable of killing themselves without any assistance from others, for example by hanging, poisoning, gassing, exsanguinating, or shooting themselves, or merely by failing to drink for a few days. If it is said that these methods are potentially unpleasant, and that therefore people ought to be protected from the unpleasant consequences of their own actions, what of personal autonomy? Can it possibly mean doing exactly as one chooses while being spared the natural results by the intervention of others? Personal autonomy without personal responsibility, that seems to be the philosophy behind the proposal.
Moreover, if one has a right to die by another’s hand, others must have a duty to kill one; otherwise the right is a dead letter, a mere phrase. It might be, for example, that a person who wished to die could not find someone willing to kill him. Would he then be able to complain to a court that his human rights had been violated, and would the court be able then to require someone to kill him? Could a professional body such as doctors be required, on pain of disciplinary action, to kill people who were in no sense ill but merely fed up? Or would we instead have to institute a new profession, that of thanatologists, whose job it would be to kill people in compliance with their wishes? We need not worry that no one would be prepared to do this job; in the days of capital punishment by hanging, the Home Office in Britain is said to have received weekly applications from people for the position of hangperson. Indeed, an outlet for sadists might reduce the level of violence in society.
Perhaps we could have an advertising campaign soliciting subjects for euthanasia. During the Second World War, there was a poster asking people whether their journey by train was really necessary, implying that the trains could be put to better use. Similarly, we could ask people whether their life was really necessary, to which the answer would assuredly be no, since we are constantly told that no one, including ourselves, is indispensable. The food you eat, for example, could be put to better use: Think of all those malnourished children in Somalia and South Sudan. Yes, it is definitely time for a euthanasia campaign.