In Defense of Euthanasia

nomouthIf a person has a terminal disease and as a result faces immense, inescapable suffering, then he or she should be allowed to take the necessary steps to end this suffering—even if it entails doctor-assisted suicide. To disallow this process would prolong the suffering of individuals and completely violate their bodily autonomy. We would require good justifications to prevent euthanasia.

The act of euthanasia is an act of consent that is informed by medical professionals. The expertise employed would not be put to the use of arbitrarily ending lives. In cases of terminal diseases, once all avenues of modern medicine are exhausted, there still remains a finalizing step that should be available to those who request it.

As with all human endeavors, there will be myopic blunders. People have and will continue to survive diseases that are considered (and often are) terminal. Individuals sometimes outlive the initial gloomy prognosis, but this no way discounts the legitimate cases of those who suffer greatly but live shortly.

To argue life is a valuable gift that is tarnished by euthanasia requires some unpacking. We must ask where the value of life comes from. Can life have value if one’s quality of life is extremely hampered? The quality of life we strive for would be an insurmountable task if we found ourselves with little time that is largely occupied by crippling suffering (both physically and mentally).

Perhaps it could be argued that the quality of life could still be maintained by the time spent with family and friends—no matter how short and painful the time may be. However, what if family members and friends support an individual’s choice to be euthanized? The individual who is suffering has a decreased quality of life, and the loved ones of the suffering individual have a decreased quality of life due to witnessing the prolonged suffering they wish to see end. What of those who wish to be euthanized but have no loved ones? May they opt for euthanasia, or is there an intrinsic value of life that forgoes any quality of life?

If the argument is that God gives life an inherent value that cannot be trumped by the desire to cease suffering, then a few assumptions need to be made clear and supported. For the sake of argument, we’ll take for granted that this conception of God exists (which, I should add, is a contentious claim).

It must be established how God gives life inherent value. If whatever God values is inherently valuable, then the value of life becomes arbitrary. God could value unnecessary suffering, and if things become inherently valued due to God’s will rather than reasoning, then we would have to defer to a pain-seeking life of arbitrary value. The value of life, it seems, should be supported by God’s reasons—not simply asserting it so.

Likewise, where God draws the line—if at all—in matters of life and death needs to be established. Perhaps there is a value of life that is intertwined with God, but how do we know if he too believes it is morally impermissible to allow euthanasia? Could it not be the case that this inherent value of life can, even to God, be overruled by a person’s autonomy and desire to bring a humane end to a short, miserable existence? Without contradiction, God could value life while recognizing both the value of bodily autonomy and the desire to end suffering.

The claim that euthanasia is the response to a fear of death is suspect. By definition, it is eliminating many painful steps to reach death sooner. It cannot be definitively claimed that a common response to fear is to engage the source of the fear as soon as possible. Maybe euthanasia is tied up to the fear of unnecessary suffering, but that is a reasonable fear.

In Harlan Ellison’s short story “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream,” the last group of humans are kept alive by a supercomputer who is, for a lack of a better word, omnipotent. The computer enjoys torturing them while maintaining their near immortality. After a century of trying to die, the group of humans find a way to end their lives and suffering. All but one succeeds, which leaves the lone survivor as a blob who can do no harm to himself, and is instead only capable of fuzzy thoughts while constantly suffering. I would not contend that his life has value to the point where he should continue existing as a tortured blob.