Executive Director - Euthanasia Prevention Coalition
In her article, Somerville comments on the Supreme Court of Canada assisted suicide decision:
A central question in legalizing physician-assisted suicide is where the balance between respecting individual rights to autonomy and protection of the “common good” (protection of others and society, including its important values) should be struck. In this case, there was almost no such balancing.
Rather, both the trial court and the Supreme Court focused almost exclusively on the rights of individual persons, so that the factual findings and legal reasoning were intensely individualistically based.
Both courts adopted a narrow definition of Parliament’s purpose in prohibiting assisted suicide (namely, that it was to protect a vulnerable person in moments of weakness from acting on suicidal ideation) and concluded that an absolute prohibition was not needed to achieve this. Indeed, the courts accepted the evidence of plaintiff Gloria Taylor, who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease, that she did not need this protection as showing that she and people like her did not – that is, they were “not vulnerable.”
Prof. Henk ten Have, a physician-ethicist at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, recently published a paper proposing that vulnerability is an innate human characteristic that we all experience throughout our lives, because it “comes from the social dimension of human existence.” In short, we are not free-floating autonomous atoms.
Vulnerability is linked to dependence on others. We are all interdependent, which means we are all vulnerable. This is not necessarily bad, as we might at first assume when we hear the word “vulnerable.”
Somerville then concludes that Supreme Court missed the common good or the importance of people caring for one another. She concludes:
The Supreme Court saw the antidote to suffering as recognizing individuals’ right to autonomy and its use to consent to the infliction of death. An alternative is a communal response of providing fully adequate palliative care, which affirms our bonds with those who are in need and are especially vulnerable.
In balancing autonomy with conflicting values, the Supreme Court failed to consider what is necessary to protect the “common good,” to protect all of us as vulnerable people by upholding “respect for life” (a preferable term to “sanctity of life”) in society as a whole.
I suggest it requires, as it always has until now, the prohibition of intentionally killing an innocent human being or helping them to kill themselves.
Margaret Somerville will be speaking on October 31 at the Euthanasia Symposium in Montreal.