My grumble this week is about inertia in the face of public demand for legalised voluntary euthanasia.
A greater part of the opposition to voluntary euthanasia is doubtless religiously motivated. The real reason why we aren’t allowed to have voluntary euthanasia is that religious people feel that God wants people who are sick to suffer or to be in a position of dependency. Of course, like all arguments involving a personal, omniscient God this argument is a nonsense. If God created us and has foreseen all our history then she could easily not have created the desire for voluntary euthanasia in us, and the question would never have arisen.
Those of us who don’t believe that God likes to torture people, of course, would treat this argument with the contempt that it deserves, however this argument is almost never made, and instead we hear that we can’t have voluntary euthanasia because it ‘cheapens life’, or because people would be forced into it by their families when they became a burden.
As to the first argument, I can see clearly the difference between voluntary euthanasia and involuntary euthanasia, the clue is in the first word. I don’t imagine that many people can’t see this difference, and I’m quite sure that if voluntary euthanasia were legalised then the legal system would be able to discriminate if people couldn’t. The second argument bears slightly more examination, it is probably true that people would sometimes would come under pressure to undergo voluntary euthanasia from their families. However, there are already situations where the legal and medical systems adjudicate whether a person is mentally competent to take decisions and that these decisions are voluntary, and the case of voluntary euthanasia could easily be added to this area. To say that we can’t have voluntary euthanasia because it would be abused is about as sensible as saying we shouldn’t try to collect taxes because people will always try to evade them!
The case of voluntary euthanasia seems to me very like that of abortion. My solution to the abortion debate is: if you’re a woman and you oppose abortion just make sure you don’t ever have one, and if you’re a man and you oppose abortion, mind your own business. In the case of voluntary euthanasia if you find this ‘offensive’, then don’t take that decision, but stay the so-and-so away from those who want to.
As to the reasons why I think voluntary euthanasia is a reform that should be introduced as soon as possible, they are as follows.
In the first place although our Christian heritage has a great horror of suicide, other cultures have not had this, for example in Classical (ie Greek and Roman) culture to kill oneself before you were captured by your enemies, or before you were incapacitated by illness, was considered a good and honourable death. The horror of suicide evinced by some in our society is merely a silly cultural foible which stands in the way of people who are incapacitated by illness from ending their suffering.
Secondly, whilst I recognise that great advances have been made in palliative care, there are some types of pain which are completely immune to the range of pain killers that are currently available. So for some people all the palliative care in the world isn’t going to help, these people would be better to have the option of voluntary euthanasia at an earlier stage in their illness. There are also conditions that result in a very unpleasant death; in Motor Neuron Disease, for example, muscles atrophy and a typical patient will experience great difficulty breathing at a certain stage in their decline. At this point people basically suffocate (unless they have indicated they wish to be kept alive by artificial respiration). Now, 30 years ago this information would have been kept a decent medical secret, but thanks to the wider dissemination of knowledge nowadays most people suffering from the condition will be aware of what I have just outlined and will spend their last few months anticipating death by suffocation. Again in this case voluntary euthanasia could be taken earlier in the decline and save the patient weeks or months of mental suffering.
Thirdly, doctors have for centuries been practising involuntary euthanasia on terminal patients by their decisions about when to stop treating, and more recently when to withdraw life support, and so forth. It seems odd that a mentally competent person shouldn’t have the same rights over their own case.
Finally I would also like to see patients who are not terminal, but who require high levels of care to be given the right to voluntary euthanasia. There are two aspects to this, people who are not mobile, require high levels of care and whose condition is not going to improve may decide that their quality of life simply isn’t good enough and that they don’t want to go on. People in this situation may also decide that whilst they could carry on they don’t want their resources spent on high level care, they would rather they ended their lives and allowed their heirs to inherit. And so long as it could be established that this desire was a genuine one, and not prompted by other family members’ pressure, then I can’t see anything wrong with it.
Voluntary euthanasia enjoys majority support in several countries and yet it is legal to some extent in only a few, such as Switzerland and the Netherlands. It is a good example of an obvious social change with many advantages and eminently manageable disadvantages. And yet its introduction seems remote in prospect anywhere, largely due to the influence of conservative social gatekeepers, themselves largely influenced by religious views that the majority do not share. Theirs is the eternal tasks of all religionists: to make what they call their ‘standards of morality’ belong to everyone. It is also a good example of how our society is not very quick to embrace necessary change. If something as simple as voluntary euthanasia is so difficult to bring in, how are other vital changes, like the change to society of declining population, going to happen in time?
Next Week: Grumble 11, more on society not being able to move decisively