One of the more common arguments used against assisted suicide/humane euthanasia (a right for which I’ve made no secret of my vehement support) is that allowing people to end their own lives on their own terms will somehow lead to doctors taking more patients’ lives without their valid consent. But this new report from the Royal Society of Canada utterly demolishes this slippery slope, concluding that allowing long-suffering patients to end their own lives is not only a moral imperative, but also demonstrably cuts down on rates of non-consensual euthanasia:
Last month, an expert panel of the Royal Society of Canada, chaired by Udo Schüklenk, a professor of bioethics at Queens University, released a report on decision-making at the end of life.[PDF, 2.43 MB] The report provides a strong argument for allowing doctors to help their patients to die, provided that the patients are competent and freely request such assistance.
The ethical basis of the panel’s argument is not so much the avoidance of unnecessary suffering in terminally ill patients, but rather the core value of individual autonomy or self-determination. “The manner of our dying,” the panel concludes, “reflects our sense of what is important just as much as do the other central decisions in our lives.” In a state that protects individual rights, therefore, deciding how to die ought to be recognized as such a right.
The report also offers an up-to-date review of how assistance by physicians in ending life is working in the “living laboratories” – the jurisdictions where it is legal. In Switzerland, as well as in the US states of Oregon, Washington, and Montana, the law now permits physicians, on request, to supply a terminally ill patient with a prescription for a drug that will bring about a peaceful death. In The Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, doctors have the additional option of responding to the patient’s request by giving the patient a lethal injection.
The panel examined reports from each of these jurisdictions, with the exception of Montana (where legalization of assistance in dying occurred only in 2009, and reliable data are not yet available). In The Netherlands, voluntary euthanasia accounted for 1.7% of all deaths in 2005 – exactly the same level as in 1990. Moreover, the frequency of ending a patient’s life without an explicit request from the patient fell by half during the same period, from 0.8% to 0.4%.
Indeed, several surveys suggest that ending a patient’s life without an explicit request is much more common in other countries, where patients cannot lawfully ask a doctor to end their lives. In Belgium, although voluntary euthanasia rose from 1.1% of all deaths in 1998 to 1.9% in 2007, the frequency of ending a patient’s life without an explicit request fell from 3.2% to 1.8%. In Oregon, where the Death with Dignity Act has been in effect for 13 years, the annual number of physician-assisted deaths has yet to reach 100 per year, and the annual total in Washington is even lower.
The Canadian panel therefore concluded that there is strong evidence to rebut one of the greatest fears that opponents of voluntary euthanasia or physician-assisted dying often voice – that it is the first step down a slippery slope towards more widespread medical killing. The panel also found inadequate several other objections to legalization, and recommended that the law in Canada be changed to permit both physician-assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia.
Hopefully, more and more reports like this one will eventually change the tides, not only with the public (which is already majoritarily in favor of assisted suicide in many countries), but also (or especially) in political circles, allowing more people to choose how to die if the need arises.
I regard the humane euthanasia in much the same light, decision-wise, as many other civil rights, such as abortion or same-sex marriage. The point is not to encourage (or much less force) more people into doing it against their will, but rather to give them the choice to do it on their own terms if they choose to. It’s an option, a way out for those where circumstance has shut all the doors and plunged their lives into darkness.
The decision to end one’s own life (and especially asking someone else for their help in doing so) is a gravely difficult one and cannot be taken lightly. But nonetheless, despite all legal or moral objections, giving people the right to do so is absolutely and unquestioningly – and perhaps even scientifically – the right thing to do in order to end pointless suffering.