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28.12.04

Assisted Suicide

I don't think I've ever seen anything in Spiked that I agreed with (though I don't read it regularly). The latest article to come to my attention is a list of arguments against assisted suicide. The author even flubs what should be an easy refutation -- it should be enough to point out that pro-suiciders' claims that classical societies allowed suicide is irrelevant to the question of whether we should allow it. Instead, he decides to go the Godwin route by pointing out that the only historic society that allowed suicide was Nazi Germany.

One of his better -- though still, I think, wrong -- points is to argue that allowing assisted suicide* will lead to a devaluing of human life, particularly the life of people with terminal illnesses or severe disabilities:

Even Mary Warnock pointed out, what sort of society tells its members that it values their right to starve to death, especially if they are a burden on society? Surely a mark of civilisation would be to offer people in despair some sort of argument that their lives are valuable, that they do have some worth. Instead, right-to-die advocates project their own gloomy estimation of the worth of human life on to these poor souls.


In support of this sentiment he offers the story of a disabled woman whose doctors assumed incorrectly that she wouldn't want to be resuscitated. I recognize that there's a danger of slippage between "it can be rational to want to die, for example in X situation" and "people in X situation ought to die." But we must remember that the former does not logically entail the latter. Indeed, to the extent that this slippage occurs, it undermines the basis of the pro-suicide argument. The pro-suicide argument is about the autonomy of the patient to define what constitutes a meaningful and worthwhile life for him or herself. Assuming that a person ought to want to die takes that autonomy away.

The article's point of view is that we ought to take that autonomy away in the other direction: "Every death is ugly and undignified, as life is wrenched away, leaving an inanimate, waxen corpse." In other words, the opinion of the patient about what his or her life is worth is irrelevant, because we know a priori that every additional breath is infinitely valuable.

*The British bill he's responding to actually goes further, requiring doctors to assist the suicide of patients who request it. I'm uncertain at the moment whether that goes too far, but luckily the distinction doesn't bear on the arguments in this post.

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