By David K. Johnson, Ph.D., King’s College
The role of doctors is ever changing. If a doctor’s role is only that of a healer, to prescribe painkillers to terminally ill cancer patients would be wrong because it doesn’t help them heal. Perhaps, doctors should instead be seen as those who help us deal with illness in the best way possible. Sometimes, euthanasia could be the best way.
An alternate response would simply suggest the establishment of a new profession and industry, divorced from medicine, whose only job is to evaluate when euthanasia is warranted and, if so, administer it. This would include always making sure people making the decision are of sound mind, that the action is desired and warranted, and that it’s done painlessly.
By this logic, if legislation to legalize voluntary euthanasia is passed, it should also ensure the training of technicians and the establishment of euthanizing centers, like we saw in the 1973 film, Soylent Green.
This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Overuse or Involuntary Euthanasia
This, however, gives rise to the objection that the legalization of euthanasia could lead to its overuse; despite our intentions, it might turn into something that’s involuntary. Yet, the strength of this objection depends on what it means.
If one thinks that legalizing euthanasia is going to lead to doctors euthanizing people when they don’t want it—as a catch all treatment for any disease—that’s just silly.
Active euthanasia has been legal in the Netherlands, Colombia, Belgium and Luxembourg for years, and nothing like this has happened. Doctors are not demons. Slippery slope arguments like this are identified as logically fallacious for a reason.
Nonetheless, if the objection is expressing a worry that legalizing euthanasia might create a subtle psychological pressure to choose it—that makes sense. Legalization of something can sometimes feel like a prescription or endorsement.
Indeed, many elderly might end up feeling like they should choose euthanasia to avoid becoming a burden to their children.
Learn more about the many ways humans use personal experience to justify belief.
Consider the series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, episode ‘Half a Life’. The planet Kaelon II has a practice called ‘Resolution’ where everyone commits ritualistic suicide at the age of sixty. They invite all their friends and family to a ceremony, their lives and accomplishments are celebrated, and then they peacefully end their life.
This is how Dr. Timicin, a 60-year-old Kaelonian, defends it:
Fifteen or 20 centuries ago, we had no Resolution. We had no such concern for our elders. As people aged, their health failed. They became invalids.
Those whose families could no longer care for them were put away in deathwatch facilities, where they waited in loneliness for the end to come, sometimes for years.
They had meant something, and they were forced to live beyond that, into a time of meaning nothing, of knowing they could now only be the beneficiaries of younger people’s patience.
We are no longer that cruel … I wish to say goodbye to my family and colleagues while I am … in complete command of my faculties, knowing they will always remember me as a strong and vigorous man.
Though Resolution is not legally required on Kaelon II, it’s such a revered tradition that it might as well be. Could legalizing euthanasia lead to a similar tradition being embraced in the real world? This worry has essentially three answers.
First, the worry seems to be overblown. More people might choose euthanasia than otherwise would; that’s to be expected for most things if they become legal. But it’s not going to morph into a tradition where everyone has to commit suicide at a set age. After all, some people are still vigorous at 90; others are spent by 50.
Pressure to choose Euthanasia
Second, the number of people being pressured into choosing euthanasia when they don’t want it would be miniscule compared to the number of people who now want it but can’t get it. And it’s not clear at all that the former is worse than the latter. People shouldn’t be forced to suffer through a debilitating disease any more than they should be forced to die.
Third, to the extent that it creates pressure to avoid the kinds of consequences that Dr. Timicin points to, that may not be a bad thing.
An Obsession with Extending Life
Consider bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel, a former member of the Obama administration, who says he wants to die at age 75. Although he’s opposed to euthanasia, he argues that our obsession with extending life has made our lives worse.
It’s not only led to parents burdening their children, and dooming them to remember their parents as enfeebled invalids—as Dr. Timicin pointed out—but it’s caused us to spend more of our years debilitated and in mental decline.
We’re not prolonging life; we’re extending death. Instead of letting someone die when they have a heart attack or stroke, we do anything we can to merely keep them alive—often leaving them with severe impairment or disability.
Learn more about dissent within society.
Only Palliative Treatment
To this end, Emanuel says, once he turns 75—he will only go to the doctor for palliative (pain relieving) treatments. No more cancer screenings, no more curative treatments, no more flu shots, no more antibiotics. “I will die when whatever comes first takes me.”
If Emanuel gets a painful terminal illness, he may rethink his opposition to euthanasia. But his approach to aging makes sense. Indeed, given that, according to the National Institute on Aging, “the 85-and-over population is projected to increase 351 percent by 2050,” and that the aged consume disproportionately more resources, everyone adopting Emanuel’s approach to aging may soon be a matter of species survival.
Common Questions about Euthanasia
Active euthanasia has been legal in the Netherlands, Colombia, Belgium and Luxembourg.
In the series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, the planet Kaelon II has a practice called ‘Resolution’. It is a practice whereby everyone commits ritualistic suicide at the age of sixty.
Bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel says he wants to die at age 75. He’s opposed to euthanasia, and opines that our obsession with extending life has made our lives worse.