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Do the Demented Have a Duty to Die?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

A waste. A burden. That is how influential medical ethics expert Baroness Warnock views people suffering from dementia. Lady Warnock, a prominent adviser to the British government, told the Church of Scotland's Life and Work magazine that people suffering from dementia should be allowed to kill themselves rather than continue to burden their families and Britain's National Health Service. Sadly, Warnock's comments are all too consistent with our modern utilitarian view of life.

Lady Warnock argues that people suffering from dementia are "wasting" their families' lives and the nation's resources. She believes that merely having dementia makes one's life not worth living. She maintains that people should be allowed to give advance notice to a third party that they wish to be killed when they reach a set point of mental deterioration. And she wants to expand this "advance directive" to include just about any situation where a person believes their life is no longer worth living. Her ultimate goal is to license people to "put others down." "Put them down"—like a sick dog. At least she's frank.

Warnock's vision is particularly disturbing because she has served as a prominent moral adviser to the British government on matters of life and bioethics, having chaired the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology in the 1980s. Conservative Member of Parliament Nadine Dorries criticized Lady Warnock's comments, stating, "Because of her previous experiences and well-known standing on contentious moral issues, Baroness Warnock automatically gives moral authority to what are entirely immoral view points."

At the heart of Lady Warnock's comments (and, indeed, the entire euthanasia movement) is an atomistic, subjective, utilitarian view of life. Once one becomes dissatisfied with the quality of their life or determines that they have outlived their usefulness, the door is open for them to end their life. They are the sole arbiters of whether their life is worth living. And if they are unable to "do the deed" themselves, they should be free to select a proxy to do it for them.

This "freedom" ignores the duty and responsibility people have to their families and communities. As John Donne famously said, "No man is an island." Perhaps the greatest modern lie is that every person has the right to do with themselves whatever they please. This lie fuels the selfish desires of every person: the elderly person who is too proud to let themselves "be a burden" to others, and those "others" who don't want to have to care for a person suffering from dementia or physical maladies.

The weak are the first to suffer when a society embraces a "quality of life" standard as the measure for human worth. The truth is that the strong and the rich in society are the true beneficiaries of euthanasia. Their responsibility to care for the sick and infirm is lifted when euthanasia is encouraged. One honest British commentator admits as much: "We in Britain, and across the industrial West, have an ageing population. The old are living longer, and the young are breeding later and less. This presents a simple resource-management issue... We are heading for a situation where we're deciding between care for the elderly and education of the young; and in which the quality of life of a family caring for a grandparent or great-grandparent in an advanced state of senility can be significantly impaired, perhaps over decades."

So there you have it: Grandma's life is worth less than your child's education. Not even a hint of the value of sacrifice or self denial is included in the equation. For us moderns, it's all about me.

The "quality of life" rhetoric of the euthanasia movement is the same rhetoric that the Nazis embraced when they embarked on a policy of killing and sterilizing the mentally or physically handicapped. Genocide of the "defective" became the means of removing the "waste" from society. This same mindset was present in the sterilization of the mentally handicapped in the U.S. in the early 1900s. These historical examples show the end result of "quality of life" thinking. Grading lives on a scale of "quality" implies that some lives are more or less worth living than others. It is a natural step from such thinking to advocate that those unfortunate people leading "lesser lives" ought to be put out of their misery.

The Bible exorts us to "look after orphans and widows in their distress" (James 1:27 NIV), but this is hardly the message of the euthanasia proponents who want to get rid of the elderly widow who is a drain on the system. We are also commanded to help those in need: "If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has not pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth." (1 John 3:17-18 NIV) People like Lady Warnock tell us that it is good for society to be rid of the burden of the suffering, the handicapped, the elderly, and anyone who does not have a "good enough" life. Such a view is contrary to the truly compassionate Judeo-Christian principles which laid the foundation for our culture.

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