The following article is written by Julius Grey, a Montreal lawyer, and published in the Montreal Gazette on November 1 under the title: Assisted suicide is wrong and dangerous. The opinions presented in this article are those of the author.
Julius Grey, Montreal Gazette - November 1, 2013.
Support for assisted suicide has become an almost universally held belief among progressive Canadians, alongside support for unrestricted access to abortion and gender equality.
However, assisted suicide is a morally troubling idea, not comparable to the other two. We should think twice before going down that path — as Bill 52 in Quebec, which passed second reading this week, is proposing to do.
The first, purely theoretical objection is based on the notion of the sanctity of human life. Nothing is more precious than each unique person and it is impossible to recover that person once life has ceased. It is true that there are exceptions to the prohibition of killing — self-defence, security of others, warfare. Arguably, abortion is an exception — although in that case, the definition of life is not clear.
However, in all of these cases, the reasons for taking life are of overwhelming importance. It is difficult to see a comparable argument for assisted suicide.
No doubt, the impulse in favour of it is a generous one, rooted in the desire to alleviate the pain and the anguish of those in the terminal phase of life. There is also an argument based on autonomy and the right to decide by an individual who may want to end his own life. If the individual is permitted to commit suicide, why not allow him to seek help in doing so?
However, when closely examined, those arguments appear weak. Our ability to control pain and anguish is improving constantly. Very soon, pain and anguish will be substantially diminished during the process of dying. Certainly, increasing the dose of analgesic may in some cases be justified, even if there is a risk of death from this. However, that is very different from administering an avowedly lethal dose with the express purpose of terminating life.
Thus, the battle against pain and anguish does not require assisted suicide as a tool. There is no need for a new exception to the prohibition of killing and such exceptions should be made very rarely and with great reluctance.
The deliberate taking of a life is also radically different from a decision to take no heroic measures or, indeed, to stop treating an intractable disease. In those cases, death is accepted as a necessary end. In euthanasia, it is inflicted. Ceasing to treat may give the patient a few more pleasant weeks or months, while euthanasia destroys that possibility.
Modern medicine often requires caregivers to decide when to turn off the machines, because it is possible to keep a semblance of life for a long time with no brain activity. However, that is morally a totally different proposition from inflicting death while the patient is still conscious.
The second argument against assisted suicide is similar to the one often used against capital punishment — the possibility of error.
Euthanasia for any person who requests it is not envisaged by any Canadian legislation. Quebec, with Bill 52, wants to limit it to terminal cases, which frequently cause pain, anguish and loss of autonomy. However, the human being is always fallible and, as with capital punishment, errors will inevitably be made both by doctors and by patients.
The doctor may overestimate his diagnostic skills. The patient may want to end his life out of fear of pain, or apprehension of becoming a burden on his family. Even if a disease proves ultimately fatal, we all know patients who have lived several years after being given a prognosis of a few months. No human system can ever be error-proof, and that militates against any taking of life on the basis of seemingly objective criteria of impending and inevitable death.
A third, perhaps less important but nevertheless significant argument against assisted suicide is that we should give no one power to kill and that doctors, in particular, should have as their moral goal the preservation of life. As with capital punishment, the power to decide on life and death may by itself prove demoralizing.
Despite the good intentions of its advocates, assisted suicide is related to the moral relativism of our times and our society’s refusal to discuss issues of good and evil. In medicine, “good” means both reducing suffering and the prolonging of life. These two goals need not be pitted against each other. They are entirely compatible.
Julius Grey is a Montreal lawyer.