Last year the UK TV personality Ursula Presgrave generated controversy by her Facebook posting: “Anyone born with down syndrome should be put down, it’s just cruel to let them lead a pointless life of a vegetable.” Aside from the remarkable ignorance she displays about people with Down Syndrome, I’m troubled by the dehumanizing rhetoric. She thinks we should “put down” some of our fellow human beings, as though they are nothing but animals.
It may seem at first glance that her comments have no real connection to the assisted suicide debate, because she is calling for murder, not suicide. However, when one examines the debates over assisted suicide for terminally ill patients, the same kind of mentality emerges. Robert Baxter, who successfully sued in Montana for the right to get physician-assisted suicide, stated, “I just feel if we can do it for animals, we can do it for human beings.”
In my new book, The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life I provide many more examples—some of them rather shocking—of the way that our intellectual culture has promoted the view that humans should be treated like animals—or even like machines. Ironically, however, proponents of assisted suicide are trying to take the moral high-ground by insisting that their position gives humans more dignity.
The crucial question then is: Does assisted suicide for terminally ill patients really provide a “Death with Dignity”? Or, is it a bold step downward into the depths of degradation by treating our fellow humans as just another animal?
According to Death with Dignity, last year twenty-four states plus Washington, DC, introduced legislation to legalize assisted suicide (four states had already legalized it earlier). Except in California, this legislation failed, but the success in California has given renewed encouragement and optimism to the pro-assisted suicide lobby.
It is understandable that people nearing the end of their lives should want to avoid excruciating pain and debility. However, is death preferable to sickness and pain? Does pain or disability alter our lives to such an extent that such a person’s life has no value?
Let’s make no mistake about it: Legislation allowing physician-assisted suicide conveys a powerful message: Your life—if you have terminal illness—is no longer important or valuable, so we will not only permit you, but we will help you, kill yourself.
But who am I to impose my value judgments on others, especially those in misery who desperately want relief? The most powerful argument in favor of physician-assisted suicide is that we should respect every individual’s autonomy. Let each individual decide if his or her life has value any longer.
However, the argument from autonomy is internally incoherent. Because we as a society value personal freedom, we have banned slavery, because enslavement would violate their right to liberty. In the same way, we should not allow people to choose to kill themselves, because suicide brings an end to their autonomy.
Ironically, according to surveys of patients in Oregon who requested physician-assisted suicide, the number one reason for making the request was not pain. This is a crucial point, because all the hype surrounding passage of assisted-suicide laws centers on compassion for people suffering pain. Rather, patients more often claim that the reason they want assisted suicide is because they fear losing autonomy and control as their physical condition deteriorates. Ironically, their fear of losing autonomy prompts them to take action to end their autonomy altogether. Decisions to commit suicide by terminally ill patients are not based on reason, but on fear of the unknown, fear of losing control of one’s functions. Yet multitudes of elderly and disabled people live fulfilling, happy lives, so often the fear is unfounded.
Further, as a society we restrict people’s autonomy all the time, when we know that bad decisions are likely to destroy lives. We ban cocaine, force people to wear seat belts, and spend large sums of money preventing people from committing suicide by flinging themselves from the Golden Gate Bridge. These are all legal restrictions on people’s autonomy.
If this legislation is really based on autonomy, then to be consistent we should be willing to assist any competent adult commit suicide for any reason whatsoever. Why only terminally ill patients? This is completely arbitrary, which is why the slippery slope argument against assisted suicide has such force.
Indeed, if we examine countries where physician-assisted suicide is legal—the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland—we find evidence confirming the slippery slope argument. In the Netherlands physicians regularly flaunt the law by killing patients without consent; in 2005 about 0.4% of all deaths in the Netherlands were physician-administered euthanasia without the patient’s consent, despite the fact that this is technically illegal.
In Belgium physicians are killing mentally ill patients. In one infamous case in 2013 a physician administered euthanasia to a woman who was physically healthy, but had been sexually abused by another psychiatrist. In Switzerland, suicide “clinics” are killing people for any reason whatsoever. One Italian woman distraught because she was losing her physical beauty travelled to Switzerland and ended her life in a suicide clinic.
Instead of passing legislation that effectively tells some people that their lives are not very valuable, and that tells physicians that they can help some people kill themselves, we should encourage people to love and comfort those who are suffering. Let’s help people fight pain, not kill people who are in pain. Let’s not become so degraded that we think it proper to “put people down.”