Euthanasia and the slippery slope

I didn’t watch the recent controversial TV programme in which a man with motor neurone disease was filmed as he committed suicide. I haven’t got Sky TV, but even if I had I wouldn’t want to watch someone with MND dying. I’ve done that already with my mother.

Seeing my mother’s physical decline and death (while she remained mentally unaffected) means that I’m not an absolutist against euthanasia. She was a woman who spent her life doing things for others, and yet she ended being able to do almost nothing for herself. She couldn’t walk or talk or eat or go to the toilet unaided. It was very hard for her and all the family and at the time I secretly made a resolution. If she ever decided that she had endured enough and could not face a continued decline, I would do whatever was necessary to carry out her wishes. If she had decided she wanted to end her life I would not have sought to dissuade her or thought she was morally wrong and I would have helped her to the best of my ability.

But she did not say anything like that to me: she seemed to me to possess an almost unbreakable will to live. The quality of her life, whatever it might seem to me, cannot have seemed the same to her. I might have begged for death: she did not. And in that difference of perspective, it seems to me, comes an inescapable problem for those wishing to legalise euthanasia.

The advocates of such legislation almost always cite similar cases to my mother’s: those who are terminally ill and who either face excruciating pain or extreme helplessness. But the empirical evidence suggests that attempts to limit legal euthanasia to such extreme cases fails. Daniel James, the young ex-rugby player who recently travelled to Switzerland to die, was severely paralysed, but not terminally ill. In the Netherlands, the principle that assisted suicide is acceptable where the patient is suffering from mental rather than physical distress has been accepted (Chabot case).

In addition, those who argue for euthanasia to be legal always do so on the basis of an individual’s right over their own life. There is no obvious place in such an argument for anyone else’s view on the matter. The most important slippery slope in euthanasia doesn’t seem to me to be issues of people being killed against their will (or even pressurised into ‘volunteering’ to die). It’s how you stop those who are not terminally ill (or even physically ill at all) but are suicidal from using the method to increase their chances of dying.

At some of the times I’ve been clinically depressed, I’ve contemplated suicide, but I’ve always been too scared of the pain involved and worried I might fail. If there had been a failsafe method, I’d have been a lot more tempted. Pro-euthanasia sites (such as Scottish Voluntary Euthanasia Society try to make a distinction between ‘irrational’ suicide and ‘rational’ self-deliverance, but how can anyone decide whether someone’s wish to die is rational or not? There is no objective test for what the rational response to a situation is: was my mother’s reaction rational? If (as with someone I once knew) a retired professional woman with no close relatives decides that her life no longer has a purpose and she kills herself, is that rational? Is it more or less rational if she has chronic health problems or is in financial trouble rather than well-off? To decide on such cases is more than a doctor should be expected to do, especially when mental illness is so often misdiagnosed.

If I could be assured that legal euthanasia could be restricted to those who were imminently going to die, I would be in favour of it: I do not want people to have to go through what my mother chose to endure. But I am not convinced such restrictions are feasible, and so I currently oppose attempts to legalise euthanasia.

One thought on “Euthanasia and the slippery slope

  1. This is a subject which i’ve been increasingly hearing more of recently. I watched a programme on the BBC iPlayer (Panorama) which followed Margo McDonald, a Scottish MP wtih MND, as she researched assissted suicide and euthanasia.

    Like yourself, i’m not necessairly against the morals of it; however something did catch my attention in that documentary. If assisted suicide or euthanasia were made legal, would this make the terminally ill FEEL like they have to be gotten rid of? Would it encourage people, who otherwise would never have thought of about it, to carry it out?

    Until reading your post, i’d never really thought about the misuse of assistened suicide or euthanasia; however, as someone who suffers from depression it could become a temptation if there were an easy way out. I think most people are prevented from suicide for the reasons you mentioned: pain and failure.

    The Dutch have successfully implemented their euthanasia policy and they maintain that since its introduction there has been a steady number of cases (2,000 annually). However, one must remember that this is the Netherlands and not Britain; things seem to go down very differently in either country! I don’t think that it would work in Britain as well.


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