The push to legalise euthanasia is continuous and relentless. Thus those concerned about the dignity of human life must be aware of the challenges, and have the right information at hand to take on the pro-death crowd. Thus I here offer more reasons why we as a civilised society must not head down that dark road.
Before I do, I remind readers of what it is that the pro-life camp is actually talking about. Euthanasia is not about halting futile treatment. It is not about keeping some alive artificially when they are on the natural course of death. Nor is it about the alleviation of suffering (this is known as palliative care). Euthanasia is an act that directly and intentionally causes a person’s death. As Norm Geisler and Frank Turek explain, there is a “crucial difference between taking a life intentionally and allowing a death naturally. The first is homicide, and the second is a natural death”.
Here then are two more major reasons why the bid for legalised euthanasia must be thwarted.
The doctor-patient relationship is weakened
When the medical profession becomes involved in the killing, the delicate trust relationship between patient and doctor is undermined. People trust their lives to doctors and health care workers in the knowledge that they are dedicated to the preservation of life, to healing, to caring. This after all is the basis of the Hippocratic tradition. The Hippocratic Oath includes the commitment not to kill a patient, even if the patient requests such a course.
Once doctors become involved in the killing game, once they become “legalised terminators” as Morris West calls them, patients will be in a state of fear and suspicion, not knowing where the doctor is coming from. Ethicist John Kilner rightly fears whether “every injection, pill or new IV bag is designed to cure or to kill – to end the pain or the patient”
But it is not just the patient who is at risk. Doctors too risk becoming desensitised, seeing the taking of life as just another routine procedure. This was exactly the case in pre-Nazi and Nazi Germany. The medical establishment played a large role in the killing of hundreds of thousands of Germans and non-Germans. It took less than 20 years for German medicine to make the practice of the widespread euthanasia of “undesirables” acceptable.
Moreover, legalised euthanasia gives too much power to doctors. Doctors, not patients, are empowered by euthanasia. Even for a doctor who acts only from the noblest of motives, there is a chance of making the wrong decision for the wrong reasons. But what of unscrupulous doctors? What if doctors make a straight commission from each patient they kill, as is the case with some abortionists? As T.C. DeLacey notes, “Doctors like anyone else can be selfish and lazy. It is not unknown for doctors to take self-interested short-cuts, for example, putting a pregnant woman to the added and unnecessary strain of an induced or caesarean section birth on a Friday in order to guarantee an uninterrupted weekend for themselves. Why, then, would they never be tempted to kill as the quickest or easiest way of dealing with a troublesome case; likewise, why would they never be prepared to falsify a patient’s ‘living will’?”
There is also the problem of faulty diagnosis and predictions. To terminate a patient’s life, a doctor must have pretty good assurance of his diagnosis/prognosis. But surveys have found that one-half of responding physicians said they were not confident to predict that a patient had less than six months to live. A study published in the British Medical Journal found that there is an astonishing level of misdiagnosis of persistent vegetative state (PVS). The study of 80 patients supposedly in a deep and presumably irreversible form of coma found that three-quarters of them had been misdiagnosed. Many of the patients had either woken up spontaneously or had shown signs of brain activity.
One study found that eleven patients admitted to a New York hospital who were diagnosed as having “advanced cancer in its terminal stages” did not have cancer at all. Indeed, as one doctor put it, “Significant numbers [of patients] have been told by doctors that they have only months to live, and have lived on, often with a good quality of life, for many years. As with capital punishment, if you get it wrong, it’s too late!”
Examples are common. Doctors at a Sydney hospital decided that a man who lapsed into a coma after a drug overdose would be better off dead, claiming he had irreversible brain damage. His sister intervened, and with the help of a NSW Supreme Court judge, managed to prevent the hospital from shutting down his life support. Four weeks later the man was smiling, and kissing loved ones.
More recently a Texas man who was declared to be brain dead was on the verge of having his organs removed for transplant. As family members were saying their final goodbyes, the man’s hand and foot moved. After a period in hospital, the man is now recovering at home. Amazingly, he recalls doctors pronouncing him brain dead while in hospital.
Legal euthanasia sends out the wrong message
“Some lives are not worth living.” That is the clear message being sent out by a society that enacts assisted-suicide legislation. As a clinical intensive care specialist put it, “To solve the problems of the suffering by killing them does not help the next suffering person … it sends signals of despair and helplessness. It weakens the social prohibition against killing, and allows that some lives might not be worth protecting.” At the moment very few people request euthanasia, and of those who do, many change their minds. But once legalised, it may well seem to be an option to many people, simply because it is legal. Indeed, people may feel they have a duty to be killed.
Once euthanasia is legally allowed, questions may arise as to the desirability of killing off certain sections of society. One utopian bioethicist told a Harvard university audience in 1987 that once euthanasia becomes more accepted, it could be used to “get rid of morally undesirable people”. And once we get to that point, the obvious questions that come to mind are: Who will judge who is worth living? What criteria will we use?
It needs to be remembered that the Nazi holocaust was preceded by this line of thinking which says that certain lives are not worth living. Indeed, a very influential essay appeared in 1920 by Dr Alfred Hoche and jurist Karl Binding entitled, Releasing Persons from Lives Devoid of Value.
The cheapening of human life is the outcome of the euthanasia mentality. Talk of ‘dying with dignity’ is clearly misplaced here. How can one affirm life by eliminating it? Life is not dignified by ‘putting down’ lives. As Dr Robert Bernhoft put it, “My idea of death with dignity is facing it with courage and humor. Putting one to sleep like a rat is not dignified”.
Moreover, there is what is known as the normative effect of the law. Whenever we legalise something, we send out a message that as a society we endorse that activity. That is, what a society allows intellectually, and more importantly, legally, will impact on how individuals respond to those conditions. One study found, for example, that not one AIDS patient in England who wanted to end their life did so, while 30% did in the Netherlands. The reason? PAS is illegal in England and hospice care widely available, while the exact reverse is true in Holland. So those who wish to legalise PAS will inevitably see a rise in such cases. Bad thinking leads to bad laws which lead to bad outcomes.
Thus we must never legalise euthanasia. Nations which have, such as the Netherlands, have experienced a mountain of trouble. We owe it to one another to treat the suffering, and not kill the sufferer.