Margaret Somerville . The case against euthanasia

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June 27, 2008

It’s impossible not to be moved by a plea to end someone’s suffering — but the arguments against assisted suicide are ultimately more compelling
Margaret Somerville,The Ottawa Citizen
Moreover, “secular cathedrals” — our parliaments and courts — have replaced our religious ones. That has resulted in the legalization of societal ethical and moral debates, including in relation to death. It is not surprising, therefore, that the euthanasia debate centres on its legalization.
Mass media and the mediatization of societal debates, including euthanasia, also have major impact. Media focus on individual cases: People, such as Sue Rodriguez — an ALS sufferer who took her fight to die to the Supreme Court of Canada — pleading for euthanasia, make dramatic, personally and emotionally gripping television.
The arguments against euthanasia, based on the harm that it would do to individuals and society in both the present and the future, are very much more difficult to present visually.
Moreover, the vast exposure to death that we are subjected to in both current-affairs and entertainment programs might have overwhelmed our sensitivity to the awesomeness of death and, likewise, of inflicting it.
But one of my students responded, “If anything, I think many of our reactions come not from an overexposure to death, but from an aversion to suffering, and an unwillingness or hesitancy to prolong pain.”
Finding convincing responses to the relief-of-suffering argument used to justify euthanasia is difficult in secular societies. In the past, we used religion to give value and meaning to suffering. But, now, suffering is often seen as the greatest evil and of no value, which leads to euthanasia being seen as an appropriate response.
Some answers to the “suffering argument” might include that:
– even apart from religious belief, it’s wrong to kill another human;
– euthanasia would necessarily cause loss of respect for human life;
– it would open up an inevitable slippery slope and set a precedent that would present serious dangers to future generations. Just as our actions could destroy their physical environment, likewise, we could destroy their moral environment. Both environments must be held on trust for them;
– recognizing death as an acceptable way to relieve suffering could influence people contemplating suicide.
Might the strongest argument against euthanasia, however, relate not to death but to life? That is, the argument that normalizing it would destroy a sense of the unfathomable mystery of life and seriously damage our human spirit, especially our capacity to find meaning in life.

Margaret Somerville is director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, and author of The Ethical Imagination: Journeys of the Human Spirit.

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