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Why an atheist opposes the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia

by | Feb 10, 2022

Editor’s note. The following speech was delivered by Kevin Yuill at a press conference in Rome opposing euthanasia and assisted suicide that was co-sponsored by the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.

Kevin Yuill is the author of the book 
Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalisation.

I must apologise for the academic take on this but I find that the more I research and think about this subject, the more disturbing it gets. I wish to point out the dangers to our humanity, looking at the present and at history (I am a historian).

Let us first look at moral inequality. Do we wish for there to be separate moral categories of people? Sanctioning AS/E [Assisted Suicide/Euthanasia] for some categories of people renders them morally unequal to those who we do not sanction and, even more, actively try to prevent their suicide.

Moral equality is not simply a religious concept but is also expressed as the inherent dignity of human beings. It was encapsulated in the Enlightenment and expressed in the French revolution: “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” and the American Revolution: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal.”

Moral equality also finds expression in homicide laws. It is no less wicked to kill an 86 year old who does not value her life than it is a 24 year old who does value his life. The equal value that we place on the lives of both of these people – and all others – reflects this moral equality.

Why would this be any different for suicide? It is right to strenuously prevent people from killing themselves, even if these people do not value their own existences at the time. That is our job as fellow humans, as a community. We do not say “violenti not fit injuria” (there is no crime when consent is given) in relation to most suicides. If we allow (and assist) suicides for the purpose of preventing “unbearable suffering” – which, of course, is not a medical prognosis but entirely subjective– how can we not respect the wishes of the lovelorn 24 year old?

Someone sacrificing herself to save others, for instance, is a beautiful act, rightly admired and celebrated. But we may not make this decision for someone else. And our humanity demands that we save the man teetering on the bridge. It is always a virtuous act to save a life, even if the person manages to kill himself the next day.

We must assume a human life is worth saving. We also try to prevent violence against a member of our community, even if the killer and victim are the same person. When we see someone drowning, we overcome our natural respect for the physical integrity of the other person and, as I was once trained, render them unconscious if it is necessary to save them. Sometimes, we must protect people from themselves.

Ah, but what of those categories of people whose remaining existence is only suffering? Surely, we should honour their wishes. They have very little time left and life can only mean torture.

Let us look at suffering. In areas where it is legal, pain – or even concern about it – is not in the top five reasons why people take the option. Of course, a terminal prognosis or being told that a condition will gradually rob you of all of your abilities will depress people, very understandably. They will suffer. But, as those who work in hospices will tell you, this suffering – if not the underlying disease – is curable. People can adjust.

The key is that the Commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is not reserved for Christians. Once we draw a line between categories of people whose lives we believe to be expendable and those whose suicides we will strenuously try to prevent, we have not so much stepped onto a slippery slope as stepped off of a moral precipice. For who can draw that line and maintain it in the “safeguards” that we hear so much about? And where should it be drawn?

Every country that legalized assisted suicide and/or euthanasia on the basis of unbearable suffering of the dying has expanded the categories of those eligible it within 10 years. The Netherlands is a case in point. The “Postma” case concerned a doctor who killed his mother-in-law who was dying of cancer and begged to die. Through the years, death as treatment has expanded to include the autistic and intellectually impaired, the profoundly mentally ill, and other categories. The increase in categories has been even more dramatic in Canada, where the stipulation that death be “reasonably foreseen” has been dropped. Disabled people in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Canada now are eligible simply because their disability is assumed to decrease their quality of life. The phrase “better off dead” is often used about disabled lives.

History

What is the real project of legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide? It is an attempt – an honest and usually well-motivated attempt – to rationalize human existence, to remove the messiness at the end of life, to prevent suffering. …

In history, the principles behind euthanasia are 1) mercy towards the suffering; 2), the argument that the economic resources spent in keeping someone with minimal quality of life alive would be better spent elsewhere.

To eradicate suffering is a noble but chimerical and inherently dangerous project. Samuel Williams , who coined the phrase euthanasia in 1870, combined compassion and contempt when he said that no problem occurs when “a life is taken away that has ceased to be useful to others, and has become an unbearable infliction to its possessor”. 

With chloroform, it became possible to reduce suffering. But this was soon rationalized into reducing the sum of human suffering. Therefore, in the first few years of the twentieth century, Dr. Ella K. Dearborn called for “euthanasia for the incurably ill, insane, criminals, and degenerates.”

In Germany – even before the notorious T4 Aktion programme launched during the Third Reich, the suggestions for euthanasia contained both compassion and the need to rationalize and control death. In 1922 one legislator sent demands to the Reichstag: ‘i. Extermination of the mentally ill. 2. Mercy killing for the ‘ terminally ill. 3. Mercy killing for the exhausted. 4. The killing of crippled and incurably ill children.'” This, of course, does reduce suffering.

In the Netherlands and in Canada, we are moving in this direction. We already have mercy killing for the terminally ill and the option of suicide – though not extermination – for the mentally ill. In the Netherlands, the “Completed Life” initiative, which has the support of mainstream political parties – promises the option of euthanasia for all those over 74 – mercy killing for the exhausted.

Moreover, the second principle – that economic resources are better spent elsewhere than keeping someone with minimal quality of life alive – contains a totalitarian principle: that the individual should be sacrificed for the good of society. It is still part of the discussion though it is not promoted as it has been in the past. Again, it threatens our moral sense, our respect for the humanity in every person.

None of this is to suggest that those who want euthanasia and assisted dying share anything with the Nazis, who took this logic to extreme and brutally murdered people in psychiatric hospitals. My opponents are genuinely humanitarian people who are well motivated.

But euthanasia and assisted dying pose a technical solution to a moral crisis for both the individual and for society. It is the individual who is faced with the existential question that has long faced humans – to be or not to be. Society wishes to solve the problem of suffering with a solution that, to use H. L. Mencken’s phrase, is simple, neat, and wrong.

Categories: Assisted Suicide
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